Western passage at the megalithic site of Knowth with decorated orthostat on left. Co. Meath, Ireland.

Mystifying Megaliths: Knowth, Keeper of Ancient Tombs

(Read the article on one page)

The rolling green hills outside of Ireland hold more history than can be seen. Legend blends into folklore, and folklore transforms into history. Knowth, located not far from Dublin, is part of a greater pre-Christian complex called Brú na Bóinne, within which Knowth is joined by sister sites Newgrange and Dowth. From its mythological founding to the mysterious mortal builders of its megalithic passage tombs, Knowth has withstood the tests of both time and bloodshed as bravely as Tara, the hill of Ireland's ancient and medieval sovereignty. Knowth therefore rivals Tara not only as a stronghold of Irish power, but as keeper of the best preserved megalithic tombs of the region.

Knowth’s Megalithic Tombs

The megalithic passage tombs at Knowth (and at the neighboring Newgrange and Dowth) were manmade, created from large megalithic stones. Evidence suggests that these structures were intentionally forged for pre-Christian burial and ritual purposes. Around 2000 years later, after a gap in activity, it appears that the site was used for a few select Iron Age cist graves—thus Knowth's sacredness was either remembered and expanded or inadvertently continued after the millennia break.

Knowth panorama.

Knowth panorama. (Günter Claßen/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The particulars regarding the structure of the tombs are best described by Ireland's own world heritage site:

"[Knowth] covers about half a hectare (approx. 1.5acre) and is 95m across at its widest point. Around the entrances to the tombs are settings of unusual stones such as quartz, granite and banded stones. Smaller tombs, some of which are connected to the large tomb, cluster around the great mound."

Aerial view of Knowth.

Aerial view of Knowth. ( Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government )

Knowth encompasses two megalithic tombs, known simply to modern archaeologists as the east and west tombs. Megalithic tombs are precisely what they sound like—a large chamber lies at the end of a long, sometimes curving, passage. The chamber itself is not only wide enough for more than one visitor, but also tall enough for visitors to stand erect. Beehive ceilings shaped by corbelling allow visitors extra standing room, likely for the purpose of whatever religious rites were performed within the mounds.

Eastern Passage inside the megalithic site of Knowth, Co. Meath, Ireland.

Eastern Passage inside the megalithic site of Knowth, Co. Meath, Ireland. (Przemysław Sakrajda/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Mythical Inhabitants at Knowth

Mounds were sacred sites in numerous ancient cultures, particularly those located in the British Isles, and it is believed that it is from these religious traditions that the medieval beliefs of fairy mounds stemmed. Mythologically, Knowth has a long-standing role in pre-Christian traditions. Irish folklore tells the tale of Oengus (or Aengus), the son of the Dagda and thus one of the Tuatha de Danann, who requested the area of Brú na Bóinne (thus Newgrange, Dowth  and Knowth) as his personal abode.

Legend states at he fell in love with a mortal princess named Caer Ibormeith (cursed in the form of a swan yearly) in his dreams, and ventured away from Brú na Bóinne to find her. After successfully locating her amongst numerous swans, Oengus and Caer lived the rest of their days happily married within Brú na Bóinne.

A painting of a Victorian era description of Áengus mac Óg, depicted here with swan wings.

A painting of a Victorian era description of Áengus mac Óg, depicted here with swan wings. ( Public Domain )

Knowth’s Art and Archaeology

Archaeological evidence reveals that the megalithic tombs very likely were locations of religious rituals; yet whether those rituals involved burial alone or other practices is still up for debate. Little evidence has been found to suggest habitation in or around the mound in the Neolithic period; yet the discoveries of votive offerings both within and outside the megalithic structure indicate the likelihood of visitors to the site for religious reasons. Archaeologists have postulated that due to the construction of the passages within the mound—and similar structures seen at Tara, for example—there was likely an astronomical reason behind the methods used and the erection of the megalithic structures. The procession of ritual activities in, around, and/or through Knowth likely had a relationship between the east-west movement of the sun and the corresponding gods.

Artistically, Knowth contains a vast amount of megalithic artwork, ranging from the "typical" ancient Celtic symbols of spirals and lozenges (diamond or rhombus shapes), both usually believed to represent the cycle of the sun or seasons. Once more, due to these pre-Christian geometric patterns—ones that have been frequently uncovered in pagan Celtic spaces—a correlation between the movement of the sun and the use of the mound seems likely. The  ogham writing of the early Irish people also abounds on the megaliths, though these writings are from about two thousand years after the geometric shapes were likely carved. Not only do these inscriptions reveal the site was returned to and once again valued, but it was between the period of spirals and lozenges and the  ogham writings (the Neolithic period and early Iron Age, respectively) that Knowth went through its most significant transformation.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Himmerod Abbey and Church building
Himmerod Abbey, a Cistercian monastery that's existed for almost 900 years in what is now western Germany is closing down for good, due to running expenses and also a shortage of monks. Notably, the monastery was used during the 1950’s in a distinctly non-monastic capacity, as a secret meeting point of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers discussing West Germany's rearmament.

Myths & Legends

Sak K'uk'/Lady Cormorant – Public Domain, Palenque, Mexico, Jiuguang Wang - CC BY SA 2.0
In the mountain rain forest of Chiapas, México, sits the ruins of Palenque, considered the most beautiful ancient Maya city. Silhouetted against a backdrop of natural hills and valleys, the elegant pyramids and palace offer fine Maya bas-relief carvings of high-grade limestone and stucco.

Human Origins

Noah's Sacrifice - watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot
The imperfect state of archaeological researches in the Near East impedes any definite identification of the original race or races that created the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Gordon Childe, however, the predominant racial element in the earliest graves in the region from Elam to the Danube is the ‘Mediterranean’.

Ancient Places

Himmerod Abbey and Church building
Himmerod Abbey, a Cistercian monastery that's existed for almost 900 years in what is now western Germany is closing down for good, due to running expenses and also a shortage of monks. Notably, the monastery was used during the 1950’s in a distinctly non-monastic capacity, as a secret meeting point of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers discussing West Germany's rearmament.

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article