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16 November 2008
The secrets of Knowth

Forty years ago, archaeologist George Eogan became the first person in centuries to see the underground passage tomb at Knowth in Meath (Ireland), part of Brú na Bóinne (Bend of the Boyne), now a Unesco World Heritage site. A year earlier, in 1967, the Knowth excavation had uncovered a smaller underground passage leading in from the western face of the megalithic mound, but this larger east-side tomb surpassed it, recalls Eogan, a professor of archaeology at University College Dublin. "The western tomb was stunning but the east one was huge," he says.
     Knowth's charms had lain undiscovered for hundreds of years before excavations started on the site 46 years ago, with Eogan present. The fourth volume in a series of books on the dig's findings is published by the Royal Irish Academy later this month. "We started at Knowth in 1962 and we have been there ever since," he says, detailing how the project has uncovered 18 satellite tombs around the great mound as well as unusual findings, such as a decorative flint macehead and a series of eight-century inscriptions within the passages and chambers. But some of the findings pre-date all of that, explains Eogan. "We found evidence of pottery, houses and flint artefacts from a pre-passage-tomb stage of early Neolithic settlement around 4000 BCE," he says. "Then around 3000 BCE there was an important transformation and the early Neolithic was replaced by the passage-tomb societies and they built their spectacular monuments."
     The original mound at Knowth was ringed by a series of kerbstones, slabs of 'greywacke' rock that was probably sourced and transported from several miles away, says Eogan. But what really sets the stones apart is the art they bear, a series of angular and spiral inscriptions. "The art is fantastic. Knowth has the largest collection of megalithic art known," says Eogan. "I believe a lot of the art, maybe all of it, was done on site. Sometimes it stops at ground level so I believe the stones had already been erected before the art was applied." And while it might be nice to look at, Eogan believes the art served more specific purposes too, marking rites of burial or celebration. "I believe some of it could be commemorative, it does occur within the tombs, like headstones. In addition I believe the kerb was a processional way, that people could walk around," he says, pointing out marks that could have served as signposts of sorts.
     The art has survived millennia that saw great changes at Knowth. The site underwent a revamp around the eighth century CE when it became a protected settlement, the royal residence for the Brega kingdom, and some of the smaller satellite tombs were destroyed.
     One of the quirkier discoveries at the megalithic site in Knowth is a series of inscriptions on stones that line the underground passages and chambers. A curious mixture of ogham scratchings and more modern 'alphabetic' script, they seem to have been doodled around the eight century. But by whom and why? "They are in fact vandalism or graffiti," says Francis J Byrne, professor emeritus of early Irish history at University College Dublin, who has studied the inscriptions in depth. "They date from a period when Knowth was in occupation as a royal site by early Irish kings of the Brega kingdom from around 700 CE onwards." Much of the writing details around 20 names, some rare and some common, of the writer's contemporaries, and forms one of the largest known hoards of historical graffiti, says Byrne.
     
Source: The Irish Times (15 November 2008)

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