Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
The West entrance of Knowth.
The standing stones near the entrance to the west passage at Knowth. In the area surrounding the enterance there are several settings, round dish-shaped hollows, and a number of exotic stones, which are not native to the area. There were large amounts of quartz spread around in front of the entrance.

The West Entrance and Passage

There are a number of unusual features arranged about the entrance to the West Passage. Two large standing stones, the one on the left a tall thin pillar of sandstone, the one to the right round and bulky, stand guard outside the entrance. It may be that these stones represent a husband and wife, perhaps a divine mythical couple such as Lugh and Buí, who are both associated with the monument:

While Lug mac Céin, otherwise known as Lug mac Eithlenn, is one of the best-known figures in the Irish pantheon, his relationship with Buí is poorly documented. To the references in the Dinnshenchas, we can add that the Banshenchas mentions Bua, daughter of Ruadrí, king of the Britons, as one of Lug's wives, and that in an anecdote preserved in YBL, Lug is said to have been married to Buach, daughter of Daire Donn.

The Epynom of Cnogba, Tomás O’Cathasaigh.

The west entrance stone at Knowth.
The West Entrance stone at Knowth. Over the equinox sunsets, the standing stone casts a shadow, which lines up with the groove on the Entrance Stone.

The Knowth standing stones are similar in shape to the pattern found in the avenue stones at Avebury, where the thinner stone is thought to represent a male, and the rounder shaped stone a female form. Both stones had been knocked over, possibly deliberately, at some unknown time in the past. In the early 1980's American researcher Martin Brennan observed that shadows cast by both stones fall on engraved kerbstones: the taller stone will fall on the vertical groove of the Entrance stone at sunset, while the round boulder casts a shadow on the engravings on the next kerbstone to the right.

Stone Settings

The excavators discovered six oval settings in front of the entrance area, and a collection of exotic, egg-shaped stones placed on the ground. The function of these settings is unknown, though they often contain splintered quartz. There are seven settings outside the East entrance on the other side of the huge mound. These interesting features have been identified at several other passage-graves in Ireland: there are two outside Cairn T at Loughcrew, six around the base of Queen Maeve's Cairn at Knocknarea in County Sligo. There were also a pair of settings discovered outside the entrance to Newgrange, but they were removed during reconstruction. The Knowth examples remain where they were found.

The west entrance stone at Knowth.
The West Entrance stone at Knowth is carved in a similar style to the East Entrance stone and the so-called Guardian stone.

There are areas of cobbling and stone paving outside both entrances. At both the the East and West entrances, a large scatter of quartz chunks were spread about the area on the old ground surface.

The West Entrance Stone

The West entrance stone is carved in the same style and pattern as the East entrance kerbstone, and the same technique can be seen on the so-called Guardian Stone at the bend in the west passage. It is highly likely that these stones were carved by the same artist. The stone is a slab of greywackie, a type of sandstone which is fairly soft and easy to carve. The slab is three meters long and has a vertical groove carved in the centre, dividing the art into two panels. As mentioned above, the standing stones cast shadows at sunset near equinox. The shadows fall on this stone and the next kerbstone to the right.

Knowth west at sunset
The elevated sun viewed from close to the entrance of the western passage at the equinox (23 rd September 2008, 18:50 UTC+1). For a short period of time, only the southern side of the outermost section of the passage is illuminated. By sunset at c. 19:20 UTC+1, the sun will have moved significantly to the north (right) in azimuth, decreased in altitude, and is no longer in alignment with the outer passage (Photo: F.Prendergast).

The Passage

The passage and chamber are narrow and cramped, able to accomodate very few people at a time. It is quite likely that there were public gatherings outside the entrances on the equinoxes and other festivals, but only a few special individuals were allowed to enter the monument and make the ritual journey to the Underworld.

The first five meters or so of the passage was destroyed when a ditch was dug during the sixth or seventh century, and several of the passage orthostats were thrown out, some of which were re-used in souterrains. Three engraved stones, thought to be from near the entrance of the west passage, were discovered buried in a ditch by the excavators in the late 1990's. These stones have been re-erected within the passage.

West passage stone, Knowth.
A displaced orthostat from the passage of Knowth west. The stone was removed when the ditch was dug, discovered during excavations, and restored to the passage.
Photo © Padraig Conway.

The west passage runs straight into the cairn with thirty-three orthostats on the left side of the passage and thirty-one to the right. This is the newer extension of the passage, added in the neolithic when the mound was expanded and enlarged. Twenty-five meters in the passage bends to the right and joins the original monument. During the excavations the roof corbels were removed and the passage stones straightened. The passage was encased in reinforced concrete, but the restoration cannot have been too successful, as the passage is damp, and the cribbing is still in place twenty years later.

Basin stone, Knowth.
The displaced basin lies at the bend of Knowth west. The edges of the basin are chipped and smashed, as if someone tried to remove it in the past and became frustrated.
Photo © Padraig Conway.

The original entrance is marked by a sill stone; to the right is a large, ornately engraved stone dubbed the Guardian stone. In front of the sill stone, a large stone basin lies in the passage. The edges of the basin are chipped and broken, and it seems that at some stage an attempt was made to remove it from the monument. The basin probably belonged at the end of the passage behind the double sill stones.

The heavily decorated stone at the bend in the west passage of Knowth.
The heavily decorated stone at the bend in the West Passage, which some think is a human face or Guardian stone. This is the original entrance to the older chamber, built before the passage was extended. Photo © Padraig Conway.

The Chamber

George Eogan and his fellow excavators discovered the entrance to the Western passage while working on a medieval souterrain on 11 July 1968. The souterrain was connected to a passage built from huge slabs, and he suspected they might have found an internal megalithic structure. An exploration began at 6.30 that evening, and Eogan published an account of their first visit to the chamber.

Accompanied by Quentin Dresser and Tom Fanning, I crawled on hands and knees: the thrilling and somewhat terrifying exploration had begun. At c. 10m into the passage an orthostat was leaning inward, but it was possible to crawl under this and continue until further leaning orthostats were encountered; this hindrance was overcome by crawling along on the stomach. The amount of loose stones on the floor was making progress difficult, but perseverance paid off, and soon the passage began to increase in height, and the megalithic art became more frequent and elaborate.

The distance that we had travelled inward was unknown, but suddenly a basin stone lying on the floor suggested the possibility that a chamber existed. At this point the entire structure was becoming increasingly impressive, and it was almost possible to stand upright. Further advancement led to the discovery of a sillstone flanked on the southern side by an orthostat, which was decorated with art that resembled an anthropomorphic figure. This orthostat gave the impression of acting as a guardian to what we were beginning to suspect was a chamber or ‘inner sanctum’.

The bend in the passage indicates that the inner chamber is an earlier structure, and that the outer passage is an extension added when the original monument was enlarged. The walls and ceiling of the chamber are constructed of massive slabs, the ceiling being composed of one single enormous slab. There are nine orthostats on each side of the passage, and three sill stones, the sill at the entrance, and a double sill at the end of the chamber.

Carved stone in Knowth.
The complex panel of engravings known as the Guardian stone of Knowth, marking the entrance to the original monument. Note the sill stone to the right. Photo © Padraig Conway.

The large decorated stone at the bend in the passage is considered by some to represent a human face, perhaps the Guardian of the chamber and passage. It has somewhat human features, but given that the art at Knowth is symbolic and abstract, it is more likely to represent an astronomical occurrence, such as a setting full moon illuminating the passageway near an equinox sunrise. Martin Brennan has suggested that the rectangular style of art at Knowth may represent fast moving beams of light.

Eogan's account of the 1968 discovery continues:

That soon proved to be the case, as continuing inward for another c. 4 meters finally revealed a chamber, undifferentiated in plan and segmented by two sillstones. This was very well preserved and constructed of orthostats and capstones that were generally larger and more elaborately decorated than anything hitherto encountered in the passage. It was stunning to have discovered a chamber that was as structurally intact as the day it was built.

Once the initial excitement abated, Quentin Dresser decided to go back for a measuring tape and in doing so to report the discovery to those anxiously waiting outside, Fiona Stephens and Seán Galvin, who subsequently returned with Quentin. Some time was spent examining the structure and the art before we all re-emerged in a state of excitement, measuring the passage as we went and discovering that we had travelled some 34 meters into the mound.

Carved stone in Knowth.
The stone next to the Guardian stone is covered with a complex array of complex patterns. Photo © Padraig Conway.

At the end of the passage, the space widens to a 'bottle' shaped undifferentiated chamber covered by the massive roof flag. There are a number of beautiful engraved panels of art here. The example above, the last orthostat to the left of the keystone, has an elaborate and unusual design where earlier symbols seem to have been picked over later with a symbol or structure with three arches. There seems to be some red pigment on the stone that may well be ancient. Some have suggested that this carving may be a representation of a dolphin or whale, while others believe it to be a carving of the moon.

The north or left panel of the end recess at Knowth, west passage.
The north or left panel of the end recess at Knowth, west passage. This is one of the most unusual designs of Irish megalithic art. Photo © Padraig Conway.

Eogan noted that the engraved stones became more elaborate and frequent the further they progressed into the monument, and that the most complex carvings were the furthest from the entrance. Many of the stones have been worked over with pick-dressing, possibly obliterating earlier carvings. Several of the carved panels are covered with score marks, which look as though they may have been made with an iron blade, most likely during the occupation of Knowth in the seventh and eighth centuries when the souterrains were constructed. These visitors left fascinatong examples of early graffiti: there are a number of names carved onto the neolithic art, some written in ogham.

Ogham inscription in the West passage of Knowth.
Ogham inscription in the West passage of Knowth.

A highly unusual ritual object was found buried in a pit close to the tall standing stone at the entrance to the West passage. Considered to be a stone phallus, this mysterious item is 25 centimeters long, with ten ribs and a groove carved along the shaft, and arcs or circles carved around the end.

Carved object from Knowth.
A decorated stone object found near the West entrance of Knowth.
Image from Excavations at Knowth vol. 6.

Permission to access to the passages at Knowth is restricted to researchers and is difficult to get. Anyone interested in viewing the art needs to make an appointment with the Office of Public Works.

The end recess of the west passage at Knowth.
The end recess of the west passage at Knowth. There are many beautiful engravings on the stones here, and the designs on backstone and sillstone echo the patterns on the entrance stone. Photo © Padraig Conway.