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The right hand or northern recess of the east chamber at Knowth. Two huge pillar stones guard the recess which houses the magnificently engraved stone basin. Picture © Padraig Conway.

The east passage and chamber at Knowth.

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.

The entrance to Knowth east.
The entrance to Knowth east.

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 longest megalithic passage in Europe: Knowth east.
The longest megalithic passage in Europe: Knowth east.

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.

The inner entrance at Knowth east.
The inner entrance at Knowth East. Several elaborately carved slabs mark a point about 10 meters from the chamber, which can be seen through the triangle, where the innermost passage stones have leaned inwards.

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.

Knowth during excavations.
A photo of Knowth taken during excavations shows the cuttings behind various kerbstones.

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.

The magnificent corbelled roof of the east chamber. Picture © Padraig Conway.
The magnificent corbelled roof of the east chamber. This is the largest chamber and highest capstone found in Ireland. The capstone is more than 7 meters over the floor. Picture © Padraig Conway.

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.

The basin 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.

Knowth Basin Stone East Passage by The Discovery Programme on Sketchfab

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 he missed.

Perhaps 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.

The stone basin.
The Dagda's Cauldron, the Great Basin of Knowth, right recess, east chamber. This beautiful chunk of granite was carved in position; it is much too large to have been moved in after the chamber was built. Picture © Padraig Conway

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.

The Knowth macehead.
The end recess of the east chamber at Knowth.

A 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 engraved stone.

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.

A plan of the east passage and chamber showing the location of rectangular engravings, from Knowth, the book of the excavation, by George Eogan.
A plan of the east passage and chamber showing the location of rectangular engravings, from Knowth, the book of the excavation, by George Eogan.

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."

A close up of the basin in the north recess.
The basin in the north recess.