Current Archaeology

Knowth Excavations

An article from Current Archaeology No.188 published in October 2003.

In 1970 Andrew Selkirk visited George Eogan's excavation of the Neolithic passage tombs at Knowth, near Newgrange in the Boyne valley north of Dublin (Current Archaeology No.22). The excavation was then in its ninth year. Jeffrey May returned to the scene to interview the excavator, and to find out what has been happening at Knowth more recently.

This mysterious figure - is it an owl? stands guard over the entrance to the passage tomb at Knowth.

The excavation at Knowth is one of the greatest pieces of archaeology of our time. On June 18th 2002 it was my privilege to be there with some students forty years to the day from the start of the excavation. After touring the site, George Eogan invited us over to a large caravan in the farmyard across the road to join the anniversary celebrations with Knowth trowellers, workmen and other local folk. This year I returned to Ireland to see George again, and to find out more about George Eogan. Why did he choose to spend the greater part of his life excavating at one site? And what was it like to be the first person in a thousand years to enter a great Neolithic passage tomb?

George Eogan is a Meath man, born at Nobber north of Navan, about 20 miles from Knowth. A first degree at University College Dublin was followed by a doctoral thesis on Irish Late Bronze Age swords at Trinity College Dublin under Frank Mitchell. After a first job with the Irish Tourist Board, George became Mitchell's research assistant. Digging in the 1950s included work with P.J.Hartnett on the Neolithic passage tomb at Fourknocks, and with Seán P. Ó Ríordáin at the famous 'Mound of the Hostages' on the Hill of Tara - which turned out to be another passage tomb.

George Eogan at Knowth Megalithic Passage Tomb
George Eogan at Knowth Megalithic Passage Tomb

In 1959 Trinity College acquired the Georgian Townley Hall, together with lands in the Boyne valley, and equipped it as a research centre with library, laboratories and accommodation. Development of the land involved some reclamation, and Frank Mitchell, by then the University's Registrar, asked George to investigate a small feature in a field on the estate. George, although just awarded a research scholarship to Jerusalem, undertook a four-week dig. And what did it turn out to be? Another passage tomb. The Townleyhall (not 'Townley Hall') tomb was of Glyn Daniel's 'Undifferentiated' type, in which there is no sharp distinction between the passage and the burial chamber at its end, but in plan forms a sort of wedge or V'. Such tombs were then thought degenerate types late in the Neolithic period.

This tomb, however, overlay what appeared to be a temporary habitation site used by the tomb's builders, and this produced shreds of Carrowkeel Ware, dated to the same period as the tombs. Further work was plainly needed to sort matters out. What was George to do? Spend a shorter time in Jerusalem in order to return only to write up Townleyhall? Carry on with his Bronze Age studies or pursue the problems of Undifferentiated passage tombs and their date? George opted for the latter.

The huge mounds at nearby Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth were in state ownership, and with the novel results from Townleyhall, Eogan took a look at Knowth. In 1943 R.A.S. Macalister had published the results of a small excavation at the great mound which seemed to reveal a kerb and a satellite passage tomb of Undifferentiated type. George noticed the tip of a stone protruding from the ground 40 metres from Macalister's site. Digging here revealed another Undifferentiated passage tomb. And during the excavation, part of yet another small tomb appeared, and this was investigated in a second year's dig. Further work saw larger stones coming to light, some way out from the base of the big mound. Underneath them was an occupation site with early Western Neolithic pottery - a great rarity then for Eastern Ireland. The big stones turned out to be the kerb of the great mound, apparently separated from it as a result of the digging of a ditch around the base of the mound around the 7th century AD. Rich Neolithic occupation, lavish megalithic art, Early Christian, Norman and later medieval structures: questions multiplied, prospects dazzled, and the digging continued.

The great mound in the centre of the site looked increasingly like a passage tomb on the scale of Newgrange. But where was the passage? In 1967, work on the western side revealed a souterrain (medieval storage chamber). At one end, a wall seemed to run into the mound with a cavity beyond. George Eogan takes up the story: 'On the following day, July 11th, careful excavation enlarged the size of the cavity, and that enabled a workman, with the aid of a torch, to look in. He reported that he could see a passage extending inwards for a distance of some metres. On further excavation, using a flash lamp I could see much larger side stones and capstones, one bearing megalithic art. We were thrilled, and all of us in the group - Quentin Dresser, Tom Fanning, Sean Galvin, Fiona Stephens [later to become Mrs Eogan] and myself - speculated on the extent of the tomb. The only way to solve that problem was to climb in, so we set off.

In some places the side orthostats were leaning inwards due to the immense weight of the overlying mound, so we had to crouch and wriggle or go on hands and knees and in one place contend with a pool of muddy water. As there were loose stones on the floor, this was a painful operation. However, in places we could proceed in a hunched position. At one point there was a stone basin astride the passage with a sill-stone beyond it. From there the passage was much better preserved and the capstone roof was much higher. But there was no sign of an end to it. As we flashed our lamp, we saw that practically every orthostat was highly decorated, and immediately inside of the sill there appeared to be an anthropomorphic figure with two staring eyes. We speculated that this ghostly figure might have represented a guardian of the inner sanctum of the tomb. We could now walk upright, and soon reached the chamber, an undifferentiated structure with two transverse sill-stones and a back stone decorated with parallel lines like a stone at the entrance except for the absence of a vertical line.

'By now we had lost all sense of time and distance, so Quentin Dresser volunteered to return to the outside world to inform the rest of the team by now no doubt worried about our fate. Everyone then came into the tomb, and with so much excitement we almost forgot to measure the passage length. When we did, we found that it was 34 metres. It was an incredible occasion, and one that remains as vividly in my memory today as it did on the July evening thirty-six years ago. What a remarkable experience it was to have been the first in a thousand years to enter one of the greatest monuments of Neolithic Europe'.

Knowth Passage Tomb | Aerial View
Knowth Passage Tomb | Aerial View

But was that all? With a passage tomb now almost as impressive as Newgrange, George could have been forgiven if he had thought that, for the Neolithic at least, the job was done. During the remainder of the 1967 season and on into 1968, work continued on the perimeter of the great mound, with the discovery of another souterrain and more evidence of Early Christian period activity. And then, on the eastern side of the mound, diametrically opposite the 1967 passage, was a junction of four passages. Three of them were souterrains, built with the usual dry-stone walling. The fourth, however, had huge orthostatic uprights and a capstone decorated with megalithic art.

Again, George Eogan takes up the story: 'On August 1st Jim Banbury of the Office of Public Works had arrived to take some photographs, and had brought a portable generator. We got the generator going, and with further lighting from a hand-lamp and accompanied by John Rock, I moved along the passage, which was a metre wide and slightly more in height. After a couple of metres, obstructions arose, due to a downward sloping capstone and inward leaning orthostats. Having got past these, we came to a well-preserved stretch, but soon had to go on hands and knees again along the stone-littered floor. Farther on we could again stand upright. In this area was a cracked capstone highly decorated with chevrons, and in addition orthostats on both sides now had megalithic art.

But this was only the beginning of many stunning features that still awaited us. We continued our exploration, rather impatiently because of more hindrance caused by inward leaning orthostats. These touched each other at the top, and a void above had dry-stone walling above them. I now thought that the passage consisted of a two-tier structure, and in my excitement and probably not considering the dangers, I climbed up to the "upper" passage. In fact I was now walking along and over a spread of cairn derived stones. This upper "floor" was above the tops of the orthostats and it sloped gradually upwards. It suddenly came to an abrupt halt, and I felt as if I were suspended in mid-air!

But still not suspecting what might exist before me, I flashed my lamp around. And there was an astonishing sight: a great space with corbelled sides narrowed beehive fashion to a single closing slab at the top. That was only part of the structure. When I flashed the light downward, what I saw was even more remarkable, a great chamber with a rounded ground plan. I descended into the chamber - how I did so I cannot think, but I must have jumped two metres or more from the top of the orthostats. The chamber provided further excitements. Two side recesses and an end recess opened off it, making it cruciform in plan, and the orthostats as well as some of the overlying corbels were elaborately decorated. One of the side recesses had a portal-like arrangement consisting of two tall jambs again with decoration. I entered the recess. There was more art, but something even more exciting: a large stone basin over a metre in diameter, ornamented on the outside with parallel horizontal scoring and on the inside with arcs and rays.

'With its passage no less than 35 metres long, we had proved that the Knowth mound contained not one but two passage graves back-to-back. To enter these tombs for the first time was an indescribable experience, yet one entered with confidence and a sense of security. To have had the privilege of doing so is for me one of the greatest events that one could ever experience'.

So Knowth turned out to be no less spectacular than Newgrange, and with no fewer than eighteen satellite passage tombs around it, each one a major monument in its own right, in some respects more impressive than the more famous site. As at Newgrange, George found dark granite cobbles brought from the Mountains of Mourne 60 km to the north, and white quartz stones from the Wicklow Mountains a similar distance south. At Newgrange, Michael O'Kelly believed that the quartz stones formed a vertical patterned wall flanking the entrance and reconstructed them to make a dazzling white approach to the tomb. It is an attractive idea, especially to those of us familiar with the notion of dazzling white chalk barrows in prehistoric Wessex, visible from afar. But the modern reconstruction uses cement to hold the stones in the near-vertical wall. Without cement, the thrust from the mound would have caused the collapse of the wall in no time. The white quartz must have been used in some other way. The smaller amount of it at Knowth was probably spread on the ground, perhaps for ceremonial purposes. 'And what about the megalithic art?' I asked. 'Do you believe in these current ideas about it being inspired by shamans under the influence of drugs?' A slight pause. 'No' he said abruptly, and seemed to want to change the subject.

It would be wrong, though, to imagine that the Neolithic passage tombs are the only important things at Knowth. No fewer than twelve phases can now be distinguished, from the beginning of the Neolithic to modern times, and for all the fame attached to the passage tombs, no less important are the later phases. The passage tomb was succeeded by a late Neolithic Grooved Ware phase. As well as the characteristic pottery and flints, there was also a circular wooden structure rather like those found at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire. Then there were spreads of Beaker domestic refuse, although apart from pits, no structures were found. After the Beaker period, there is little evidence for human activity for the next two thousand years and this remains one of Knowth's unsolved problems, especially as there is ample evidence for Bronze and Iron Age activity in the area.

When activity resumed, it was again largely ritual: sixteen inhumation burials in pits dating to the early centuries AD. The skeletons were slightly crouched, although some were extended, and one was a double burial of two adult males, both decapitated and lying head to toe. Grave goods consisted mainly of personal ornaments, but there were bone dice and gaming pieces. One burial was that of a little girl of about six, with a necklace of 285 blue and amber glass beads, bone beads and bronze rings.

Around the 6th century there were a few cist burials, but this was a time of wider change and a new dynasty in the region - the Uí Neíll. In the 7th or 8th century the great Knowth mound was fortified with a ditch, and perhaps became the residence of the kings of North Brega. The site continued to play a key role in succeeding centuries as a prominent settlement where people lived in rectangular houses, used souterrains for storage or as refuges, and manufactured bronze, iron and possibly textiles, and worked stone and bone. Around the 10th and 11th centuries, Knowth was particularly important as one of its kings, Congalach, who died in 956, became High King of Ireland.

Twelfth century changes brought this settlement to an end. At that time, northern tribes from Breifne moved southward, but external events were particularly significant. In 1142 the first Irish Cistercian Abbey was founded at nearby Mellifont, the lands of Knowth became part of its possessions and a grange was built on the top of the Neolithic mound. More change came in 1169, when the Normans brought the centuries old native settlement at Knowth to an end.

Mellifont and its granges flourished up to the time of the Reformation in the mid-16th century, when the Abbey was suppressed and its lands, including Knowth, were acquired by new owners, some with an English background. The new settlement pattern continued in part down to modern times.

Recently, Knowth has seen further changes, with a substantial programme of conservation to preserve the monuments and to facilitate visitors to the site. The great mound has been conserved and the decorated stones sheltered from the weather, a section across the fort ditch has been preserved for public display, and the satellite tombs re-built. Archaeological work continues, however, with a major geological study of the origin of the structural stones and of course further reports on the excavation and the interpretation of the results. Still to come is an overall evaluation of the entire Knowth area.

You might think that the Knowth excavation would be a full-time job. Yet over the years, George Eogan has continued with major research on Bronze Age metalwork - three important books on bronzes, a splendid book on gold-work in Britain and Ireland (The Accomplished Art), a stream of articles and a popular book on Knowth. Teaching and committee work proliferated as Professor at University College Dublin, and a nomination by the then Prime Minister Charles Haughey led to a seat in the Irish Senate. Here George was able to develop State involvement in archaeology, such as the enviable Discovery Programme, in which substantial sums of public money were awarded for pure research. One of the first fruits is Conor Newman's magnificent survey of the famous Hill of Tara, where George excavated half a century ago.

George and his wife Fiona live in a fine Victorian house in Rathgar, a southern suburb of Dublin. His children James, Maeve, Deirdre and Clíona grew up there, and the last is soon to fly the nest. He greets you with 'Its great to see you' and in a moment all formality is gone. He is passionate about his archaeology, his views are direct and strong, and he dislikes stuffy pretentiousness, like that of certain archaeological grandees of yesteryear. So is George Eogan thinking of retiring? Not a bit of it. Although he ceased lecturing at University College Dublin in 1995, he is now involved in full-time research. With two volumes published of the seven planned for Knowth, he is preparing Volume 4 on megalithic art. Thereafter he will continue with the Iron Age and later phases as well as over-seeing studies of the environmental material. They say that working keeps you fit!

'Brú na Bóinne' is the name given to part of the Boyne valley east of Slane in early Irish historical sources. It means 'the mansion' or 'palace of the Boyne'. The sources indicate the sacredness of the area. In Neolithic times, the low ridge north of the river was dominated by three huge passage tombs. Best known is Newgrange, excavated in 1962-75 by the late Michael 'Brian' O'Kelly. Knowth with its nineteen satellite tombs, each one a major monument in its own right, now stands beside Newgrange in its vast impressiveness. Another huge but less well known passage tomb lies to the east at Dowth, while as many as twenty more passage tombs, a cursus, stone circles, a henge monument and other enclosures make up what for once can truly be described as a ritual landscape.

The area was thought to be the burial place of the high kings of Ireland, and it was important in Irish legend as the dwelling place of the Tuatha de Danann (supernatural beings). It is also known to us as the Bend of the Boyne, and just downstream is the site of the battle of the Boyne in 1690 between the Protestant forces of William III and the Catholic Irish-French army of James II. The resonance of the place lives on in politics as well as in archaeology.

Brú na Bóinne was listed by UNESCO in 1993 as a World Heritage Site. As at Stonehenge, vast numbers of visitors add to the problems of conservation, and in 1985 the Government commissioned a study of the issues involved. This led to the establishment of the Boyne Valley Archaeological Park, and the building of a splendid Visitor Centre, opened in 1997. In all of this, George Eogan played a key role. The Visitor Centre is now the starting point for all visits to Newgrange and Knowth. Sited south of the river Boyne, it is linked to the area north of the river where the monuments are by a suspension bridge. The Centre is brilliantly designed, unobtrusively placed and now well shrouded by trees and shrubs. It is spacious, with panoramic views, car park, splendid displays, a well-stocked book-and-gift shop and an excellent restaurant. You book a visit, walk across the bridge to where shuttle-buses take you to one or other site. There are cheerful, well-informed guides, many of whom have excavated with George Eogan or Michael O'Kelly. Management there has to be, in the interests of the local farmers as much as the archaeology, and the lanes leading to the sites are narrow. Access to the monuments is by guided tour only, but if you want to wander around the sites for longer, it is not too difficult to skip your return bus and come on the next one. The Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre is a model for others to follow. Stonehenge needs something like it.

Two final reports and a number of preliminary reports on the Knowth excavations have so far been published by the Royal Irish Academy: George Eogan, Excavations at Knowth Volume 1: Smaller Passage Tombs, Neolithic Occupation and Beaker Activity (1984), and (with Helen Roche) Volume 2: Settlement and Ritual Sites of the Fourth and Third Millennia BC (1997).

There is also an excellent popular account: George Eogan, Knowth and the Passage Tombs of Ireland (Thames & Hudson 1986). Another splendid publication is The Accomplished Art: Gold and Gold-Working in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age (c2300-650 BC), Oxford, Oxbow Monograph 42, 1994.

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