Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Kerbstones at Knowth.
A selection of the ninety or so engraved kerb stones at Knowth. The photo is taken from beside Site 7, looking southwards towards the West Entrance.

Megalithic Art at Knowth

Knowth has the largest collection of engraved megalithic art in the world, carved on over four hundred kerbstones and construction stones. Since excavations and conservation have finished, it is possible to walk a complete circuit around the main mound and view the entire collection of kerbstones, a veritable open-air gallery of spectacular megalithic artwork. The quality of the stones used in the kerb varies, some being quite rough, but of the 127 kerbstones, ninety are engraved, and several bear outstanding examples of neolithic art.

Knowth kerbstone.
Spirals combined with sinuous serpentine lines and spirals are common motifs at Knowth.

According to George Eogan in his 1986 account of Knowth:

Europe has about 900 stones with megalithic art from about 50 passage-tombs or related sites, but 400 of these come from the Brugh na Bóinne tombs and a further 127 from the other Meath passage-tombs: clearly this region was Europe's leading one for megalithic art.

To summerise the Knowth data we can say:

— Knowth has more than a quarter of the known megalithic art from all other areas of Europe, including Ireland.

— Knowth has more than twice as many decorated stones as are found in Iberia.

— Knowth considerably exceeds the number of decorated stones known from Brittany.

— Knowth has about 45% of the total known megalithic art from all Irish passage-tombs.

— Knowth exceeds by about 100 the total number of decorated stones from the other Brugh na Bóinne monuments.

— Knowth has more than twice as many decorated stones as are known from Loughcrew.

One of Martin Brennan's illustrations of Knowth which shows the extent of the decoration
          on the kerbstones.
One of Martin Brennan's illustrations of Knowth which shows the extent of the decoration on the kerbstones. From his seminal book, The Stars and the Stones.

The Kerbstones

Of the 127 kerbstones arranged arround the base of the huge central monument, three are missing and ninety are engraved with complex panels of symbolic art. The predominant motifs are sinuous curvey lines and circles, and over all they give a strong impression of representing lunar phases and cycles. On several of the kerbstones, a development seems to be occuring, for example, of the moon can be seen both waxing and waning as it moves through it's cycle. Many of the carvings seem to be making a count or marking a cycle. None of the carvings are representational.

A complex example of the Knowth art style.
A pretty complex example of the Knowth art style. Martin Brennan's drawing is superimposed over the photo.

It would seem logical, based on the work of Martin Brennan and Phillip Stooke, is that Knowth is very much a lunar site, and was dedicated to studying the long cycles of the moon which recurr every 18.6 years, and how they relate to the annual cycle of the sun. Many carvings at Knowth, Dowth and Loughcrew may be illustrations or representations of solar eclipses.

R. A. S. Macalister's trench at Knowth.
R. A. S. Macalister's trench at Knowth during his 1941 excavation.

The extent of the megalithic art on the kerbstones at Knowth first became apparent during R. A. S. Macalister's excavations in 1941. Macalister, looking for the entrance to the huge mound, dug a trench, one meter wide, to the south from Site 14 on the north side of the monument. He exposed fifty-eight kerbstones, forty-eight of which were engraved. Macalister illustrated these kerbstones in his 1943 report on his excavations.

R. A. S. Macalister's trench at Knowth.
Megalithic art uncovered by R. A. S. Macalister at Knowth during his 1941 excavation.

Maps of the Moon

Though it was suggested for many years that the east and west passages have alignments to the equinoxes, a survey undertaken by Frank Prendergast and Tom Ray has demonstrated that the East passage is one week from sunrise while the West passage is seventeen days from the equinox. However, both of these passages were extended greatly during the neolithic, and both of the original, now inner chambers would have admitted light from both the sun full moons nearest the equinoxs, and this theme seems to be reflected in the engraved art.

Knowth kerbstone.
Lunar symbols predominate on the kerbstones at Knowth.

At some stages during the 18.6 year lunar cycle there would have to occur grand alignments where the rising sun/setting moon and rising moon/setting sun simultaniously illuminate the original East and West chambers. This marriage of the sun and moon seems to be the message engraved in the Knowth stone basin, and such a grand scheme fits the magnificance of the site of Knowth. The mythology of Knowth, Cnogba or Cnoc Buí, tells of a soverignity goddess named Buí who is married to the solar deity Lugh of the Long Arm, the hero of the Second Battle of Moytura.

Sundials and Calendars

American researcher Martin Brennan believed many of the carvings at Knowth represent sundials and calendars, and he felt that two stones in particular represented genuine efforts to reconcile the cycles of the sun and moon.

Martin Brennan's calendar stone.
Martin Brennan's Lunar Calendar stone, SW 22.

Any genuine system of time reckoning must admit of numerical treatment, and it must consist of divisions and subdivisions of an proximately equal length. Compositions such as SW 22 draw on the simplest laws of written numerals, ordering and grouping.

The age-old problem of calendar making is in harmonizing the solar and lunar cycles. The basic formula for a solar-lunar calendar is 12 lunar months = 1 solar year. In practice, 12 lunar months are 355 days, falling short of a solar year of 365 days by about 10 days. After 2 1\2 years this amounts to nearly a full month. In other words, after 30 months, a month must be added to bring the lunar and solar cycles into harmony. 1n order to harmonize this with the seasons, two 31-month cycles or 5 solar years of 62 months need to be used.

If the year is divided into two parts, let us say a light half and a dark half determined by the equinoxes, each 31-month period will consist of 5 seasons, and the 5-year period will contain 10 seasons which will begin and end at the same equinox from which they start. This essentially was the basis of the ancient Celtic calendar, and a similar system is outlined above in a chart of the wavy line on SW 22. Each turn of the wavy line represents one month, or a com­plete circuit of the distinct but related pattern of crescent and circle repeat units which are closely matched to the phases of the moon.

Brennan's drawings of the sundials at Knowth from The Boyne Valley Vision.
Martin Brennan's drawings of the sundials at Knowth from The Boyne Valley Vision.

The count moves to 31 and reverses back to 62, keeping in pace writh the equinoxes. Crescents transform into circles as they approach the full moon when they become double circles. The eighth phase or quarter moon is represented differently, as is the seventeenth phase. The twenty-seventh or last visible phase begins to disappear into the spiral, which obscures the invisible phases.

The same imagery is echoed on SW23, where crescents appear to emerge from a spiral, and wavy lines total 12. A similar device on the lower right-hand corner of SW22 is ambiguous and could have many applications.

The Stars and the Stones, Martin Brennan, 1983.

Knowth kerbstone.
A radiating, rippling solar design engraved on a kerbstone at Knowth.

Art Within the Mound

A complex theme and style runs though the engraved neolithic carvings at Knowth. The art may be less finished than the main Newgrange stones, but the basin and mace-head from the East chamber represent some of the finest and most important engraved neolithic artifacts found in western Europe.

Both the East and West entrance stones are engraved in a similar style formed around repeating rectangular motifs, which continue within the passages and chamber stones. Both entrance stones have vertical grooves dividing the stone into two panels, echoing the arrangement found between the Entrance stone and Kerbstone 52 at Newgrange.

Knowth stone
The Guardian stone at the bend in the West passage at Knowth. The fabulous design echoes the backstone, sillstone and entrance stone.

George Eogan, who discovered the West passage in 1967 and the East passage in 1968, noted that the art becomes more complex and elaborate as the chamber is approached. The carvings on the West entrance stone are echoed at the bend in the passage twenty-five meters into the cairn, at the entrance to the original monument. A sill stone marks the chamber, and to the right, a stone which has been dubbed the Guardian stone, is covered in rectilinear designs, as is the inner sill stone and the cack stone of the chamber. A carving at the end of the West chamber has variously been identified as a dolphin or whale, a structure of some kind, or an illustration of the surface of the moon.

The location of engraved stone in the East passage and chamber at Knowth.
The location of engraved stone in the East passage and chamber at Knowth. The decoration is heaviest around the location of the original entrance to the monument.
Illustration © George Eogan.

The East entrance leads into the longest neolithic passage in Europe, but this passage is an extension, an enhancement of an older monument. The point where the passage joins this earlier structure is marked by an elaborate display of carving.

The Knowth Basin

The most outstanding example of megalithic art found at Knowth is surely the elaborately carved basin stone in the right-hand recess of the East chamber. This incredible article is one of the wonders of the neolithic world. The basin is so large that the chamber must have been built around it.

The right hand, or northern recess of the east chamber at Knowth, showing the fabulous design within the basin and the intricate engraved panel behind it.

The symbol carved into the outer perimeter of Knowth's stone basin is almost certainly a sun-moon conjunction symbol. Three concentric circles representing the sun, "embraced" by an upturned crescent moon. Such symbols are quite universal and they symbolize the "union" of the sun and moon during a solar eclipse.

It is possible, even probable, that the horizontal lines extending around the basin from either side of the sun-moon conjunction symbol are inspired by, and represent, the "wings" of the sun's equatorial streamers that are observable in a bird-like pattern that is displayed in the sun's corona during some total solar eclipses.

Eclipsology, Robin Edgar.

The art at Knowth seems to be predominantly of a symbolic astronomical nature, and the best example is the engraved basin or cauldron, above, to be found in the right-hand recess of the Eastern chamber. The artwork carved around the edge of the basin, as well as the complex pattern in the dished interior are suggestive of solar eclipses.

Design on the interior of the huge basin in the east chamber
Solar exlipse emblem carved on the interior of the huge basin in the East chamber of Knowth. Drawing © Martin Brennan.

The Knowth Flint Macehead

The Knowth mace head was discovered on Wednesday September 1st, 1982, while the east recess was being excavated. The mace head, broken in three parts, was buried in a pit with some cremated human remains and three red deer antler pins, in a pit close to the elaborately carved basin.

This ceremonial macehead, found in the chamber of the eastern tomb beneath the great passage tomb at Knowth, Co. Meath in the Boyne Valley, is one of the finest works of art to have survived from Neolithic Europe. The unknown artist took a piece of very hard, pale-grey flint, flecked with patches of brown, and carved each of its six surfaces with diamond shapes and swirling spirals. At the front they seem to form a human face, with the shaft hole as a gaping mouth.

The source of the stone is uncertain (perhaps the Orkney islands), but if the macehead were carved in Ireland, the object suggests that someone on the island had attained a very high degree of technical and artistic sophistication. Archaeologist Joseph Fenwick from NUI Galway has suggested that the precision of the carving could have been attained only with a rotary drill, a ‘machine very similar to that used to apply the surface decoration to latter-day prestige objects such as Waterford Crystal’. The association of this extraordinary work with one of the great passage tombs tells us something about the society that constructed those enduringly awe-inspiring monuments.

Knowth macehead
The highly decorated flint mace head found in the right hand, or northern recess of the East chamber at Knowth, showing the fabulous design engraved around the mace head and the intricate pattern.

It was rich enough to value highly specialised skills and artistic innovation, and it was becoming increasingly hierarchical with an elite capable of controlling large human and physical resources. Knowth and the other great tombs were statements. As archaeologist Alison Sheridan from National Museums Scotland puts it, ‘Quite simply, they were designed to be the largest, most elaborate and most “expensive” monuments ever built’. The deposition of a fabulous object like the macehead at Knowth added to the sense that the tombs were ‘a means for conspicuous consumption, designed to express and enhance the prestige of rival groups’.

This prestige was asserted in the tombs in three ways: the possession of awe-inspiring objects like this one; the use of astrological knowledge to demonstrate a link with the celestial world; and the passage of the seasons, what Sheridan calls a hotline to the gods (a phallus-shaped stone, also found at Knowth, suggests that fertility rituals were part of this mystique); and the demonstration of international connections. While small tombs like that in Annagh honoured local heroes, the great tombs were self-consciously European. There are strong parallels between Ireland’s megalithic tombs and passage graves on the Iberian peninsula and in northwest France. The likelihood is not that the tomb-builders came from these places, but that they were part of a network of Atlantic connections. Already in Ireland a strong sense of the local co-existed with a desire to be seen as part of the wider world.


Knowth macehead
The highly decorated flint mace head found in the right hand, or northern recess of the East chamber at Knowth, showing the fabulous design engraved around the mace head and the intricate pattern.

Graffiti at Knowth

The passages and chambers within Knowth are free of the Victorian vandalism inflicted on Newgrange and Dowth, but Knowth has older graffiti dating to the eighth or nineth century during the medieval occupation of the site. The Vikings plundered the caves of Cnogba in 863, when Knowth was a small village based around the old fort.

Ogham graffiti.
Ogham inscription in Knowth west.

Many souterrains were built at this time, some using megalithic stones from the entrances and the smaller mounds. It was at this stage that the entrances to both passages were removed when a substanial ditch was dug within the kerb. Another ditch was dug around the top of the mound.

Ogham graffiti.
Ogham inscription in Knowth.

There are at least twenty inscriptions scratched within the two chambers, some of which are in ogham, while others are in a fine insular script. Perhaps someone spent their time down in the chamber studying the neolithic art.