Discovering the Dark Wonders of Knowth
Printed in The Irish Times | 11 November 1986
John Rock and George Eogan at the opening to the passage of the Eastern tomb at Knowth in August 1969
, professor of archaeology at University College, Dublin,
has been excavating the great passage tomb at Knowth
in the Boyne Valley
, since the 1960s. In the first of two edited extracts from
his new book, Knowth, and the passage-tombs of Ireland
describes the discovery of the two large prehistoric tombs within the central mound.
The most spectacular of the twenty or so tombs discovered during the excavations at
Knowth is certainly the great mound. Occupying the highest part
of the ridge, it has a smooth profile when viewed from some distance.
But close examination showed that the surface was irregular
in places. There was a large pit in the centre about 2 metres
deep, possibly dating from the early nineteenth century, when
William F. Wakeman
recorded that stones were being removed for house
building and road repairs. A ditch, perhaps a fairly modern
field-boundary, crossed the mound from south to north. Elsewhere,
especially along the north-western side, the tips of kerbstones
could be detected. The external measurements, to the outside
of the kerbstones, are 80 metres (east-west) by 95 metres (north-south).
It covers 6,080 square metres, about three-fifths of a hectare
(1.5 acres), and is 9.9 metres in height.
Initially there was no evidence that the mound contained tombs. Having begun to excavate
on its northern side, we gradually moved westward and by the
end kerb, but these were suspected at the time to be associated
with one of the nearby small passage-tombs. Leaving the site
in August of that year, we had no definite clue as to the location
of an entrance into the mound.
Operations resumed in this area for the summer of 1967. After some time, it became
clear that the kerb was curving in from both sides toward a point
occupied by a uniquely decorated stone. The suspected souterrain
was confirmed and associated with it we then found the top of
what resembled a dry-stone wall leading into the tumulus, followed
by part of a parallel wall on the southern side. Loose stone
fill was removed between and around the walls, bringing to light
a capstone. Beneath this lay a solid fill of dark, generally
loose stoneless earth. The capstone had prevented it from extending
far inward and, after less than a metre was excavated, a cavity
By the afternoon of July 11th the cavity had become larger. I asked the youngest and smallest
workman on the site, Martin Colfer of Slane, to try and looks,
I thought, the structure might be only a large souterrain, and
the passage which we were excavating was plainly the work of
souterrain builders. Therefore, normal investigation of the
drystone passage's fill proceeded until evening. An entrance
was now visible, about 70 by 70 cm, between tow dry-stone walls
and roofed by a smallish capstone. I could easily look in with
a torchlight, and saw immediately that the passage led far ---
perhaps indeed for "20 yards." But most exciting was
that the dry-stone walling, after a short distance, gave way
to a monumental passage built with orthostats on the sides and
roofed with substantial capstones. Equally important, one of
the orthostats on the left side bore megalithic art.
At last I was convinced that the entrance had been found. As the time was 6.30pm and
the day's work was about to stop, I came out, delighted but speculating
as to how far the parallel-sided passage might extend. Student
helpers were told of the discovery and, with Quentin Dresser
in the fore, we soon set out on our hands and knees to investigate.
It proved to be a thrilling, if also rather worrying, experience.
About 10 metres from the entrance, we had to crawl under an
orthostat that had partly fallen inward. Next it was necessary
to wriggle through a pool of muddy water on the floor beneath
a couple of leaning orthostats. Loose stones on the floor made
our crawling rather uncomfortable, and it grew difficult to judge
how far we had gone; yet there was no sign of an end to the passage.
Eventually the roof began to rise in height and we could almost stand upright. Nearly
all the orthostats appeared to be decorated, and the whole structure
was much more impressive. At one point a stone basin lay in the
passage. Then, coming to a stone sill, we illuminated the orthostat
on its inner right side and beheld what seemed to be an anthropomorphic
figure with two large, staring eyes. This ghostly guardian suggested
that we were approaching the inner sanctum. But we still had
several metres to go, now walking erect and easily except for
some boulders on the floor. The end of the passage was finally
reached: an undifferentiated chamber with two sillstones. The
outer sill and the rear stone of the chamber were decorated,
apart from the vertical line, in a manner similar to that of
the kerbstone before the entrance with concentric rectangles.
We remained speechless for some time and marvelled at the achievement of these anonymous
passage-tomb builders. Here was truly one of their great enterprises
of close to 5,000 years ago the tomb was about 34 metres long.
What a day!
The north-eastern side between the mound and the roadway, a low bank enclosing a rectangular
area - like the bailey of a Norman moat - had shown up
on air photographs. Investigation of this 'earthwork' was first
carried out, not only so as to determine its nature, but also
to clear what could have been an area used for dumping material
excavated from the mound. But it soon proved to be complicated,
and the remains of a number of smaller passage-tombs were revealed.
Thus, our attention shifted to simultaneous excavations extending onto the large mound.
Several cuttings were opened on its eastern side at the beginning
of July. Under the natural sod layer was soft dark earth, punctured
by rabbit burrows, and obviously accumulated through occupation
on the mound. Beneath this, in turn, was a stony layer with cavities,
suggesting the presence of a souterrain.
On Tuesday 30 July, a hole appeared just to the south of the souterrain. As the hole
was at a much lower level, it could not have been a continuation
lf the passage of that souterrain. We enlarged it and, the next
day, saw that it was due to a collapsed lintel. In the evening,
I slid down into the hole, and was surprised to land at the junction
of an elaborate complex of four passages. Three were constructed
with dry-stone walling, indicative of souterrains, and they had
large capstones, like those in passage-tombs. Yet the fourth
had orthostats, arousing suspicion and one of these, very near
the beginning, bore some art.
It was now time to explore the fourth and most substantial passage of all, 1metre wide and
a little over 1 metre high at the point where I entered. After
a couple of metres, progress became difficult due to orthostats
leaning inwards and to a shifted capstone. Getting beyond these
obstructions, and at a point which would prove to be about a
third of the way in, we came upon a well-preserved stretch and
felt between the tops of the orthostats and the capstones but,
two thirds of the way in, it was almost possible to stand up.
I noticed a cracked capstone and, flashing my lamp to check
its trustworthiness, was that it was elaborately decorated with
chevron ornament. The orthostats to left and right were also
decorated. For the first time I was certain that we had another tomb.
Not knowing that there was so much more to come, I continued in astonishment, and with
increasing trouble from inward-leaning orthostats. These touched
at their tops, producing an inverted-V cross-section, but the
drystone walling which was placed above remained largely intact
and as a result I found it easier to proceed on top of the orthostats
than on the stony floor underneath. My course sloped gradually
upwards, then stopped as if in mid-air. Before me in the lamp's
beam was the most amazing sight of my life. About 2/5 metres
below lay a large chamber, whose great-corbelled roof rose around
me, spanned by a single capstone up to 4 metres above. Vast
lintels, some of which were decorated, roofed my "passage"
over the orthostats. After a while I dropped down into the chamber,
noticing its cruciform plan with a number of decorated orthostats.
The right-hand recess in this plan was "guarded" by
two large jambstones. Looking between them, I saw a uniquely
ornamented stone basin, with horizontal and vertical scorings
on the outside and just opposite the recess opening, a composition
of concentric circles with flankers at the bottom. The inside
of the basin, and the rear stone of the recess, were decorated as well.
What a structure and what a surprise! Since the previous year's great discovery,
I had never expected a second tomb in the main mound, let alone
a much more impressive one.
Knowth, and the passage-tombs of Ireland
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