Sunday, 20 July 2014


To get to the buses that take you to the passage tombs, you have to leave the heritage centre and go along a path that takes you over the Boyne and some boggy bits to the bus stop. This is pretty different to how things used to be (before Newgrange was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but it keeps the tourists from traipsing all over the farmland and so forth. I was at least hoping to get down to the Boyne (named after Boann, of course), but it was not to be, so I stuck to making my offerings at the monuments. The view of the river is stunning, though, especially when the sun comes out:

The weather was pretty moody when we got to the centre, and we got rained on a lot at Knowth, to start with, but the sun came out eventually. Like Newgrange, Knowth has been reconstructed, though of the two I think they've done a better job of Knowth; it retains the ancient feel a little better, I think.

Unlike Newgrange, Knowth is a complex of passage tombs that are situated close to one another. There's a large mound, pretty much in the middle of it all, and this one has the decorated megaliths around it. Then there are seventeen smaller mounds situated seemingly randomly about the place, some close to the largest mound, while others are slightly further away. There's also a soutterain from the Christian period, and a small reconstructed "wood circle" near the main mound (that wasn't explained by the guide, unfortunately).

So the main mound has been reconstructed, as I said, and today it looks like this:

Each of these stones is decorated with carvings - all kinds of circles, spirals, squiggles, and lines. Some of them are in better condition than others (bear in mind they're about five thousand years old), and in the winter the site's closed and the stones are wrapped up to protect them from the elements. There wasn't originally that shelf that overhangs the large stones at the base, that was put in during the reconstruction to offer some additional protection, so you just have to imagine that the earthen part of the mound slopes down to meet the stones like it does on other tombs of this type.

The main mound is a lot bigger than the others, and eventually a settlement was built on top of it, which lasted from around the Bronze Age into the early Christian period. There's also a souterrain from the early Christian period, which you can usually go inside (but we were advised not to because of the heavy rain that had been pouring down on and off all day). It's the wee lump just by the stairs there, nestling in beside the largest mound and a series of smaller ones to the right:

Up on the top of the main mound there's the remains of a ditch that was dug into it, but that's about all you can see. The view would've been spectacular on a clear sunny day, and it would've been a good defensive site. There wouldn't be much that you couldn't see coming...

You can go into a small chamber inside the main tomb, but these days you can't go any further, to where the actual chambers are. The passage that goes deep into the mound is artfully lit, though, so I took a quick picture:

There's another passage as well, but that came out fuzzy...

The most spectacular part of Knowth, for me, is the megalithic art that surrounds the main tomb. Some of the smaller tombs have stones around the base as well, but these aren't decorated, for the most part. Nobody can really say what these symbols mean, but I'd say there's a good chance that some of them represent the surrounding landscape. This one:

Gives the impression of the some of the mounds or sites - perhaps Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth (which are all pretty close together)? With the squiggly line at the bottom being the river?

Here's another one with the same kind of symbols:

A lot of them are just circles, though. Some are kind of like spots, others are more like concentric circles or spirals, either spaced out or squished together like this one:

You see echoes of this on the stones at Newgrange, too. Some of them give the feel that they're probably articulating some sort of astronomical information. One of the most interesting and complicated designs at Knowth might even be a calendar (I've heard it speculated, anyway):

This is a picture I took from the heritage centre, seeing as it came out better than the actual stone in situ. Knowth is thought to have an alignment to the equinoxes, with the sun illuminating the main chamber, although this is a little controversial - some archaeologists don't agree, because the alignment was only "discovered" after reconstruction, so the idea basically relies on assuming the reconstruction is accurate. I don't see why not, though - Newgrange's solstice alignment is still quibbled about in some quarters, but there's a tendency from the naysayers to assume the people who built the monuments were "primitive" or not advanced enough to figure out complex astronomical things. I think recent discoveries like the earliest known calendar in Europe, found in Scotland, along with alignments in other monuments, show this isn't the case.

Another controversy about the reconstruction is the presence of the white quartz. It's something that's often found at sites like this, and the brightness of the quartz means that we can assume it was used for a reason - to make the sites stand out. The bright white stones would practically glow on a bright sunny day, but the stones might also have something to do with beliefs about the dead (their use in these kinds of contexts persists long after the Neolithic and Bronze Age, too).

If you've ever seen a picture of Newgrange you'll know the reconstructed walls at the front are almost entirely white quartz, except for the limestone at the entrance (which is modern). Here at Knowth, though, the quartz is laid on the ground as it was found during excavation:

So effectively, if the white quartz was used to make the site stand out, the quartz at Knowth would be most marked from above, suggesting that perhaps it had something to do with celestial/astronomical purposes; people wouldn't really appreciate the full effect from the ground. At Newgrange, it would have stood out to people in particular, but not so much from above.

However... The quartz was also found on the floor at Newgrange (it was in a pretty bad state of collapse before reconstruction), but O'Kelly did some experiments to determine whether or not the quartz had always been on the floor, or had collapsed from the wall. He "back-engineered" a stone wall and collapsed it, and decided that the pattern of deposition - the way the stones fell - was consistent with how they had been found during excavation. The archaeologist at Knowth disagreed, and felt that the stones had always been on the floor. Of course, that doesn't mean it has to be either/or; each site could have used the stones differently, but it's an issue that's worth bearing in mind when considering how we see and interpret the sites today.

On the last post I included a picture of a "phallic" stone, which had two "horseshoe" shapes carved near the base. We see these shapes again at Knowth:

The stone is badly worn at the top, but you can just make out the two "horseshoes," side-by-side, on the main body of the remainder of it, with a straight line above them. Either this stone or another stone (that's basically the same layout), has another two "horseshoes" above this line, placed upside down this time, reflecting the two "horseshoes" below the line. What these shapes mean, nobody knows, but their recurrent usage is presumably significant.

One final picture, and then the blether is done for this post (promise!). Mr Seren was convinced that the carving on this stone is tantamount to a prehistoric goatse:

If you've no idea what goatse is, you probably don't want to know. Save yourself and don't Google it...

Up next: Newgrange.

Here we go... Newgrange Heritage Centre

When you arrive at the heritage centre - which is pretty far from the monuments - you have the choice of just going around the centre itself, or paying extra to go and see Knowth and/or Newgrange. We chose to do the whole lot, seeing as we'd come so far and all, and were given stickers so we could get on the buses that would take us up to the sites. Knowth was the first bus for us, but we had some time before we needed to get to the stop so we took in the heritage centre first.

If you decide not to take in the sites themselves then the heritage centre gives you a pretty good idea of the background and what the most important bits look like (and there are some things aimed at kids as you go round, so they won't be too bored). There's a reconstruction of a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age house:

Which I think shows just how much work was done outside. There's not much space to stand up comfortably in the house, especially with the smoke from the fire, so really this is a place to sleep and eat. This kind of house would have been situated in a small settlement, like this (with Newgrange in the distance, there):

The Neolithic is the period when people began to work the land, and moved away from a hunter-gatherer sort of existence. They domesticated grains to grow crops, and domesticated animals to keep herds of meat and milk more handy. This allowed a more more settled existence - they didn't have to keep moving around so much, to follow herds of wild animals for meat, or gather wild fruits as they became available, and so on. This new way of life also meant that new kinds of tools were needed, to help grind the corn, or store it, for example, so this is the kind of background and context that we can consider the huge passage tombs that began to be built in this period. It took serious organisation, effort, and there was inevitably a reason for these passage tombs and the way people were interred inside them, on a religious, symbolic and spiritual level. 

There are examples of what people might have worn at the heritage centre:

Although the direct evidence for this clothing is sparse, so take it with a grain of salt, perhaps. This example is based on the kind of tools, like scrapers, that are often found at Neolithic or Bronze Age sites, which tell us that leather was a common material that was used. There are also lots of decorative items, like bone pins and things like that, which would have been used as fasteners for clothes, or as decorative hair pieces. 

Here's some pottery, with an example of a friction tool lurking at the back, to help start a fire. It's a rod of wood looped through a piece of sinew that's attached to a "bow," which could be used to spin the rod quickly and cause enough friction to light the kindling pretty quickly and without too much effort:

Some of the pottery here is pretty similar to pottery you find in England from the same period - I couldn't say for sure about Wales or Scotland, off the top of my head, but when I worked for a rescue archaeology unit down in England I saw a lot of this kind of pottery, and there's certainly evidence of contact between England and Ireland at this point in time (like beads and jewellery from the Wessex area, which is a pretty important area at this time period). Just to the left in this picture there's a saddle quern - a large stone with a slight depression in the middle where the grain would be placed, then ground down by rubbing a stone back and forth over it to make a rough flour. It's hard work, and this kind of quern was eventually replaced by the larger "wheel" types, which can grind a bit more grain, and do it quicker.

There are a number of artefacts from the passage tombs on display as well, like this decorated "basin":

The decoration is pretty typical of the period, and a stone like this is often found inside the passage tomb's chamber, set into a recess off to one side. Because most of the tombs have been disturbed by the time archaeologists get to them, it's difficult to know exactly what they were used for, but the general idea is that they held the cremated remains of the people interred into the chamber. Not just the remains of one person, but several mixed together, usually, and sometimes there's evidence of animal bones too. These might have been burned with the individual as they were cremated, or else they might be evidence of ritual feasting at the site. 

Around the basin there are some artefacts on display, one of which is a decorated flint mace-head:

The decoration looks like a face - you can see the eyes, the suggestions of hair, a beard, and stylised "ears." Working flint like this - smoothing it, and putting a hole through it so the handle can be slid through it and fixed in place - is a laborious process, and it might have involved the use of a drill that was highly advanced technology for this time period. The flint would have to be worked carefully so as not to crack or break it, and whoever made it would have been extremely skilled. 

The mace head was found in the chamber of the main passage tomb at Knowth, and given the amount of disturbance in the tomb - people breaking in to look for goodies over the centuries and millennia - it's a wonder it managed to stay undiscovered until archaeologists got there.

Finally, there's an object on display that's simply described as "phallic," and I'm not sure if this one's from Knowth or Newgrange (examples have been found at both, and elsewhere, though):

One thing to note about this is the "horseshoe" symbols carved at the bottom - these can be seen on a lot of the decorated stone slabs at Knowth, which we'll be looking at next...