The huge cruciform east chamber at Knowth is the largest in Ireland, with its capstone
placed some 7 meters above the floor, crowning a complex corbelled ceiling.
From the entrance kerbstone to the inner endstone, the monument measures
40 meters, making it the longest megalithic passage in Europe. It is twice the length of the passage at Newgrange. The orthostats (passage stones) and roofslabs are
decorated with a variety of angular and curve-linear motifs, many of which echo the patterns on the entrance stone, below.
During excavations it was found that the first few meters
of the passage had been destroyed by Iron age ditch digging. The entrance
is now sealed off by a slab of concrete, and you enter the mound by crossing
a metal bridge and through a door on the left. The engraved entrance stone
has a vertical groove, slimiar to the Newgrange entrance stone. The small limestone pillar stone, egg shaped
'exotic' stones, chunks of quartz and a circular setting are spread out before the entrance.
The long passage leads straight into the mound, with some wonderful carvings on the walls and roof. At one stage, about two thirds of the way along the passage is what seems to be another entrance, possibly from an earlier phase of the monument. There is a cluster of decorated stones on both sides of the passage and a roofstone is elaborately carved with zig zags. This position certainly marks some kind of boundary within the passage.
From here, you have to get on your hands and knees to enter the massive chamber. Unfortunately there is no public access - the last 5 or 6 meters involves crawling through a narrow gap where the
orthostats have leaned in. To fix this and straighten the passage stones would have involved dismanteling the corbelling, which was rightly thought to be a bad idea.
The chamber measures
about 8 meters across from north to south, and is even more massive than Newgrange. Large stone slabs, which are rudimentary basins are found in
the left and rear recesses; the basin in the rear recess has a number of small circular engravings and a faint pecked inner boundary line.
A large stone
basin is located in the right hand recess before a beautifuly decorated stone.
The basin is crafted from a huge lump of granite and measures
1.2 m in diameter. One of the first things to note about this massive
and wonderful rock is that it was placed here before the chamber was built
- it is much too large to have been brought in later.
is shaped like a cauldron - an important motif in Irish mythology. The
best known cauldron belonged to the Dagda, a chieftan of the Tuatha De
Dannan who lived in nearby Newgrange. His cauldron was one of the four
chief treasures that the De Dannans brought to Ireland with them, the
others being the Stone of Destiny at Tara, the Sword of Light and Spear
of Lugh. The cauldron was a vessel of plenty - no one ever left it hungry,
and it never ran out of food. It also had the power to regenerate life: dead bodies
could be placed into the cauldron and drawn out alive and whole again.
This symbolism gives us some insight into neolithic religeous beliefs,
as archaeologists believe the basins were used to contain cremated ashes.
It is highly probable that these chambers were viewed as wombs, and that
rebirth and reincarnation beliefs were a fundamental part of the rituals
that went on here.
The centre is dished and engraved with a rayed solar design - a central
circle opens into 12 radials arranged six on either side of a central axis.
At the top, another circle becomes a nest of arcs. The image above is
taken from Martin Brennan's book The Stones of Time, and I have added the circle in the centre which
it represents the meeting of the sun and moon at Knowth, when once or
twice in each cycle, both passages were illuminated at the same
time on specific dates. The outside is decorated with a series of seven
grooves which run around the basin which give way to a solar/lunar emblem
at the front. The grooves are interupted by four vertical grooves on the right side ov the bowl. The back stone of this recess also has some interesting
engravings: diamonds, lozanges, cupped arcs and some stars.
A fine artifact was discovered in the entrance to the northern recess, close to the basin.
It is a decorated mace head, carved from an incredibly hard piece of flint,
and probably ceremonial.The flint is thought to originate from the Orkney Islands. It is engraved with whorls and spirals in a similar fashion to the Entrance
Stone at Newgrange,
and is a definitely precurser to Celtic art.
Three of the artifacts found
at Knowth, the granite basin, flint macehead and the long grooved object from the west pasage are the works of master
craftsmen. The macehead and grooved object are on display in the National Museum in Dublin.
Canadian scientist, Philip Stookie, has postulated that the engraved
slab at the rear of the east chamber (above and OR 47 in the diagram below) bears
an engraving which may be the earliest map of the surface of the moon.
This idea supports the work of several researchers who believe that illumination
of chambers by the moon was of as much importance as the sun, and that
certain full moons near the equinoxes could possibly have shone on this
However, due to the damage to the entrance during the Iron age, it's being blocked up with a
concrete slab during the restoration, and the fact that Knowth House blocks the eastern horizon, we can only speculate about possible alignments, or attempt simuliatons with a computer.
The Secrets of Knowth, a short clip from RTE news about the Knowth laser scanning project, from May 2012.
George Eogan's account of the discovery of the east passage and chamber in 1968:
"I moved along the passage, which was a metre wide and slightly more in height. After a couple of metres, obstructions arose, due to a downward sloping capstone and inward leaning orthostats. Having got past these, we came to a well-preserved stretch, but soon had to go on hands and knees again along the stone-littered floor. Farther on we could again stand upright. In this area was a cracked capstone highly decorated with chevrons, and in addition orthostats on both sides now had megalithic art.
But this was only the beginning of many stunning features that still awaited us.
We continued our exploration, rather impatiently because of more hindrance caused by inward leaning orthostats. These touched each other at the top, and a void above had dry-stone walling above them. I now thought that the passage consisted of a two-tier structure, and in my excitement and probably not considering the dangers, I climbed up to the 'upper' passage. In fact I was now walking along and over a spread of cairn derived stones. This upper 'floor' was above the tops of the orthostats and it sloped gradually upwards.
It suddenly came to an abrupt halt, and I felt as if I were suspended in mid-air!. But still not suspecting what might exist before me, I flashed my lamp around. And there was an astonishing sight: a great space with corbelled sides narrowed beehive fashion to a single closing slab at the top.
That was only part of the structure. When I flashed the light downward, what I saw was even more remarkable, a great chamber with a rounded ground plan.
I descended into the chamber, how I did so I cannot think, but I must have jumped two metres or more from the top of the orthostats. The chamber provided further excitements. Two side recesses and an end recess opened off it, making it cruciform in plan, and the orthostats as well as some of the overlying corbels were elaborately decorated. One of the side recesses had a portal-like arrangement consisting of two tall jambs again with decoration.
I entered the recess. There was more art, but something even more exciting: a large stone basin over a metre in diameter, ornamented on the outside with parallel horizontal scoring and on the inside with arcs and rays."