Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Republic of Ireland

Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Ireland. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.

At the end of May, Josh and I took an eight day trip to Ireland. We emerged, windswept and damp, with over 5,000 photographs, which I have since whittled down to more reasonable, post-sized selections.

The art and history of Ireland are outside my particular expertise, so the information included in these posts has been culled from guidebooks (DK and Lonely Planet), related websites, our many lovely guides, and a variety of materials provided at the sites themselves.

Passage tombs at Knowth

Our first day outside of Dublin began at Brú na Bóinne, one of the island’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The valley of Brú na Bóinne contains three Neolithic centers—Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth—each of which possesses a great mound (large passage tomb) and smaller satellite graves. Only Knowth and Newgrange are open to visitors, and these are only accessible through tours provided by the visitor center. Such stringent oversight is unusual in Ireland, but it allows for better preservation of these important, fragile monuments.

Decorated kerbstones at Knowth
Satellite tomb at Knowth

Knowth is the first stop for those who choose to visit both open sites. Of the three centers, Knowth is the oldest, was utilized for the longest period of time (up to about 1400), and is arguably the most complex.

Knowth’s great mound possesses two entrances (referred to as the “male”/western and “female”/eastern chambers due to their relative shapes), but visitors can only go into a contemporary passage and small exhibition space near the less impressive western passage. Chunks of white quartz and dark, rounded granite are scattered on the ground around both entrances of Knowth, while the same kinds of stones have been reconstructed into supporting walls at Newgrange. This discrepancy is probably more reflective of changes in archaeological practices and philosophy towards reconstruction than a difference in original use and placement at the two mounds.

Entrance to the recently built exhibition space by the western, “male” passage at Knowth
Inside the western passage at Knowth. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.
Entrance to the eastern, “female” passage at Knowth. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.

More importantly, Knowth boasts the largest collection of Megalithic art in Europe, most of which is still in-situ. A good sampling can be found on the slabs, or kerbstones, around the base of the central mound, although much of what exists is located in the primary but inaccessible “female” chamber.

Decorated kerbstones around the primary mound at Knowth

Knowth also differs from Newgrange in that the site includes a number of smaller satellite passage tombs clustered closely around the central mound.

Satellite and primary tombs, Knowth

Inside the entrance to one of several small passage tombs at Knowth (visible concrete added as part of reconstruction)
Satellite tomb overlooking the Boyne Valley, Knowth

Although all passage graves contain cremated human remains, it is likely that the great tombs also had additional, ritualistic functions, as suggested by the fact that their passages were tall enough for people to walk through, and each was lit at either a solstice or equinox.

Knowth and Newgrange were also once sites of woodhenges (reconstructed at Knowth), which post-date the mounds by several centuries. Like the large passages, these henges were arranged to correspond to significant dates in the year’s cycle.

Reconstruction of the woodhenge at Knowth

At both sites, archaeological reconstruction was aided by kerbstones which ring the bottom of most passage tombs; similar large stones line the interior passageways of the primary mounds. Abstract imagery—particularly spirals, circles, and undulating lines—has been engraved into the surfaces of over a hundred of the boulders. It is unclear what, if anything, these “symbols” represent, although they may depict aspects of the landscape, particularly the sun, rivers, hills, and even the mounds themselves.

Decorated kerbstones around the primary mound at Knowth

Stairs climbing the great mound, Knowth 
Wind-whipped Josh on Knowth’s great mound
View of the Boyne Valley from the top of Knowth’s great passage tomb

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013, unless otherwise noted.

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