Knowth is a complex of prehistoric passage tombs just west of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. Dating from about 3000 BC, Knowth consists of a large central mound surrounded by several smaller ones. It is especially important for its rich collection of megalithic art, which includes over 300 decorated stones.
The central mound contains two passage tombs, entered from the east and west. These are not accessible to visitors, but the eastern passage can be glimpsed from an excavated chamber. The site is visited via a guided tour departing from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre (as with Newgrange).
History of Knowth
The Knowth area was first settled in the early Neolithic period (3800-3400 BC). In this period rectangular wooden houses were built, along with a large wooden enclosure measuring 100m across.
The passage tombs of Knowth were constructed between 3300 and 2900 BC. Interestingly, the wooden houses built in this period were round instead of rectangular.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the deceased were cremated and their ashes were placed inside the tomb along with other material. Elaborate ceremonies took place outside.
Between 2800 and 2500, the ritual focus at Knowth seems to have shifted away from the great passage tombs. A small wooden circle was built to the east of the great mound, where grooved items and other artifacts have been found.
By 2500 BC, Knowth had fallen into disuse, but the area continued to be inhabited by the Beaker people (named for their distinctive style of pottery) in the Bronze Age around 1800 BC and the Celts in the Iron Age around 500 BC.
A new age of settlement began in the first few centuries AD. The great central mound was used as a protected settlement, fortified by the digging of two deep ditches with an entrance on the southeast. During this period, bodies were buried around its base.
By 800 AD, Knowth was the royal residence of the kingdom of North Brega and thus hosted an extensive settlement. This included many rectangular houses, domestic buildings, and underground storage areas known as souterrains. In 965, it was the seat of Cormac MacMaelmithic, who was later the high kind of Ireland for nine years.
In the late 12th century, the Anglo-Normans used the central mound as a protected fortress, the stone foundations of which can still be seen. The site was finally abandoned around 1400.
Archaeological excavation at Knowth began in the 1960s, overseen by George Eogan and Helen Roche. The western passage of the great mound was discovered on July 11, 1967 by George Eogan (see below for his account). Excavations still continue today, and the site was only recently opened to visitors.
What to See at Knowth
The primary monument at Knowth is the central great mound, which measures 80m by 95m in size and is outlined by 127 kerbstones, many of them decorated with carvings.
Inside the great mound are two passage tombs, one facing directly west and the other directly east. The two do not meet, but terminate very close together at the center of the mound. Both passages are lined with decoratively carved stones known as orthostats.
The eastern passage ends in a cruciform (+-shaped) chamber similar to that at Newgrange. It contains a stone basin of uncertain purpose and is richly decorated with carved spirals and other designs.
The western passage terminates in a small tomb area, with no side niches. George Eogan recorded his experience of discovering this passage in 1967:
Visitors to Knowth cannot currently enter either passage due to safety reasons, but can enter a chamber created by archaeologists just south of the eastern passage.
Inside is an illuminated plan of the site, a cross-section of the layers of the mound created by the left wall, and a section of the defensive ditch built around the mound. On the way in, there is a view into the eastern passage, but no carved stones can be seen.
Scattered around the central mound are 19 smaller satellite mounds, which are also passage tombs. At least two of these were built before the great mound, and some have decorated stones.
Just east of the eastern passage is a timber circle or "woodhenge" that was constructed between 2800 and 2500 BC. The logs that stand today are of course not the originals, but a reconstruction using the post-holes that were discovered fairly recently.
Visitors can climb to the top of the mound, where there are foundations of the 12th-century Norman settlement and fine views of the Boyne Valley.
Quick Facts on Knowth
|Categories:||earthworks; mounds; ruins|
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|Coordinates:||53.701127° N, 6.491225° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Knowth|
- Personal visit (August 28, 2007).
- Bru na Boinne: Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, and the River Boyne (Archaeology Ireland, 2003), 16-17.
- "Ireland: Neolithic Period" - Encyclopædia Britannica
- Lonely Planet Ireland, 7th ed. (January 2006), 525.
Map of Knowth, Ireland
Below is a location map and aerial view of Knowth. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.