Knowth before Knowth

Article excerpt

Recent research at the great Irish passage tomb of Knowth has revealed new decorated stones, which were apparently recycled from an earlier tomb. Here, George Eogan describes the finds and discusses the implication of an early phase of tomb building predating the major passage tombs of the Boyne Valley.


A feature of Knowth is its megalithic art (Eogan 1986: 146-76). The large site contains at least 200 decorated stones, the smaller sites about 42. For the latter this is a minimal number as all have lost a large number of their stones due to land usage over the centuries, including removal during later Early Christian times, 9th-10th centuries AD, for souterrain building. It can be presumed that some of these were decorated. There are also 24 stones with decoration that had been removed from tombs and were lying around the site or built into souterrains. The stone basin in the Eastern Tomb is also highly decorated. On these figures at least 300 stones with art were used at Knowth; this constitutes the largest concentration of megalithic art known.

Recent discoveries

During the 1996 season, in the course of the excavations in the outer part of the passage of the Western Tomb, Site i [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], further stones with megalithic art emerged [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2-9 OMITTED]. Amongst these are seven stones which stand apart from the others, not only due to the character of the art and the fact that it is confined to two-thirds of the surface, but also due to their positioning. As a result of the latter the decorated surfaces are either wholly or partially hidden. Three of the stones, nos. C. 3, 5 and 10, served as capstones while nos. Or. 17, 18, 74 and 81 functioned as orthostats. Arising out of these discoveries a review of the already discovered stones in the Eastern Tomb was carried out. This has shown that four comparable examples exist in that tomb. These are capstones 20, 32, 43 and orthostat 2. In addition two corbels in the roof of the chamber are portions of similar stones (Co. 10F and 5D/6E) (FIGURES 10 - 13). It may also be noted that portions of two stones with angular picked decoration were found within the basal layer of the mound, each on the north side of the respective passage. These are narrower than the previously mentioned stones but yet they could have functioned as orthostats (FIGURES 2, 10: Dec. Stones A (Western) and B (Eastern)). Apart from these two portions all the other relevant stones are substantial pieces - they are palaeozoic green grits, they tend to be rectangular in shape and average 1.5 m in length and 70 cm in breadth. The art, applied by picking, is usually confined to one surface but a portion was left underorated. Only one stone, West Tomb C.10, has decoration on two faces, the broad faces. On one face the art is poor and it is restricted to two limited areas with zig-zag motifs (not illustrated) but on the other face the composition is elaborate. On Western Tomb orthostat 17 there is a uniform composition which extends over the back and western side of the stone. The art on the stones described above consists of three separate compositions and the similarity between the decoration on some of these stones is striking:

Chevron West Tomb C. 3, 5 and Or. 17 and 74; East Tomb C.43, also the two pieces from the mound (Stone A and Stone B). Total 7

Chevron/Spiral West Tomb C.10 and Or. 18 and 81; East Tomb C.32 and Or. 2, and two corbels, Co. 10F, 5D/6E. Total 7

Spiral East Tomb, C.20. Total i

Except for East Tomb Or.2 the decoration was wholly or partially hidden. The art on West Tomb C. 3 and 10 and East Tomb C. 32 and 43 was on the under surface but, as these stones extended over the orthostats, portions were obscured. It was wholly obscured on Western Tomb C.5 and Eastern Tomb C.20 (being on the upper surface), on the back surface of Western Tomb Or. 17, and on the two incomplete pieces (Stones A and B) from the mound. …