A selection of the 120 or so engraved kerb stones at Knowth. The photo is taken from beside Site 7, looking southwards towards the west entrance.


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Knowth's engraved stones

Knowth has a huge collection of megalithic art engraved on it's stones. Since excavations and conservation finished, it is possible to walk right around the main mound and view the kerbstones. The quality of the stones used varies, some being quite rough, but of the 127 kerbstones, nearly all have been engraved, and several are outstanding examples of neolithic 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 stones, a development seems to be occuring, eg: of the moon waxing and waning as it moves through it's cycle.

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.

As I have said on other pages on this website, the art at Knowth strikes me as 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. My hypotheses, which takes on bord the work of Brennan and Stooke, is that Knowth is a specifically lunar site, and was dedicated to studying the long cycles of the moon which recurr every 18.6 years.

Although archaeology has finally caught up with some of Brennan's ideas and accepted that the east and west passages have alignments to the equinoxes, it is likely that the alignment also focuses on the full moons nearest the equinoxs. At some stage in 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 main passages. This seems to be the message engraved in the stone basin, and such a grand scheme fits the magnificance of the site of Knowth.

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

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. From his seminal book, The Stars and the Stones.

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

Though it could be said in general that though the Knowth art is less finished than the main Newgrange stones, the basin and mace-head from the east chamber represent some of the finest and most important neolithic artifacts found in western Europe. Several of the stones in the satellites are also engraved.

The Owl or guardian stone at the bend in the west passage at Knowth. The fabulous design echoes the backstone, sillstone and entrance stone.

Most of the kerbstones of the central mound are engraved and there are several outstanding designs on the stones. A good referance is Martin Brennan's book 'The Stones of Time' which has illustrations of a large portion of the Knowth artwork. The stone illustrated below is a fine example of the kerbstone art. Brennan believes it represents a lunar calendar/sundial.

Graffiti at Knowth

Both of the chambers within Knowth have graffiti dating to the 8th or 9th century during the medieval occupation of Knowth. The Vikings plundered the caves of Cnogba in 863, when Knowth was a small village based around the old fort. 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.

There are at least 20 inscriptions within the two chambers, some of which are in ogham, while others are in a fine insular script.

Perhaps someone spent time down in the chamber studying the neolithic art.

Engraved kerbstones on the west side of the great mound at Knowth.