on my first visit to Bru na Boinne, my budget-conscious self opted against the extra expense of adding Knowth to my ticket. probably for the best in the end as the weather turned dismally drizzly by the end of my hour on-site. Newgrange, with its impressively restored facade and amazing equinox illumination, certainly seems more impressive at a cursory glance, but now having seen both I stand equally, if not more, impressed with Knowth.

of the passage tombs in the area, Knowth is the largest, both in terms of its primary mound and because of the smaller satellite tombs that surround it. construction of the primary mound dates to sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE, making it slightly younger than Newgrange. unlike Newgrange, however, the primary Knowth mound has two interior chambers accessed by passages from opposite sides of the mounds. the two chambers are mere feet from one another, but the passage does not extend all the way through the mound. also unlike at Newgrange, visitors aren’t allowed down the passages. because of its history, Knowth is not considered structurally safe enough to allow the average person access.

some speculate that, after falling into disuse, a layer of dirt from the top of the mound at Newgrange cascaded down over the entrance and decorated and decorative stones, preserving them and sealing the passage and tomb securely until farm laborers excavating for stone unearthed the entrance in 1699. (Charles Campbell, the man responsible for Newgrange, was part of Cromwell’s plantation plan and had leased the land from the government in England.) at Knowth as well, dirt covered the entrances and stones circling the mound at Knowth but whereas Newgrange went largely untouched in intervening centuries, all manner of people built atop the mound at Knowth. sometime during the Iron Age, it became a hill fort, beginning a period of long habitation. (those inhabitants must have found the passages as some of the stones sport graffiti in ogham symbols.) a branch of powerful early-Irish clan made their home around and atop the mound around 800 CE and several hundred years later the site came under the jurisdiction of the monks at Mellifont, who constructed a number of stone buildings on the site, which further affected the structural integrity of the interior passages. once the monks lost the land it was used as farmland for centuries, primarily for grazing, until being purchased by the Irish government in 1939 with early excavations beginning a few years later and a major one getting under way in the early 1960s.

the primary mound at Knowth is about 95 meters across at its widest point and is surrounded by 18 smaller mounds. a ring of 124 elaborately carved kerbstones — with artwork on both sides and some evidence they may have been appropriated from earlier sites based on carvings — circles the base of the main mound and represents the largest collection of neolithic art in Europe; they are remarkably well preserved because they remained covered by dirt for so many centuries. the passages are 40m (eastern) and 34m (western) in length and were constructed along an axis to align with sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. excavations of the site began in the 1960s and took some 40 years to complete and took the mound down to its base. (Newgrange, on the other hand, hasn’t been dismantled as its interior has remained sealed since its construction. Dowth has yet to be excavated – I recall our guide saying something about leaving sites for future generations to investigate.)


having some experience with sacred neolitic sites, I was very much looking forward to visiting the monuments at Bru na Boinne. the monument at Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, making it 500 years older than Stonehenge, and a century older than the Pyramids at Giza! it’s a marvel of engineering and complex calculation; the planning that went into ensuring the openings aligned in the way that they do at the precise moment that they do … it’s a cliche to say it boggles the mind, but instances like this necessitate such language.

briefly: at sunrise on the winter solstice, rays of sunlight enter through the opening above the door — the roofbox (the top gap in the photo), filters down a passage some 18m long and into the central chamber. for seventeen minutes on the Solstice (and the one day preceding and succeeding it), the chamber is flooded with sunlight. while this illumination now occurs several minutes after sunrise, calculations indicate that, when the monument was built, illumination coincided precisely with sunrise.

obviously, the calculations to achieve this effect were something complex. there is a hill across the River Boyne that mirrors that on which Newgrange is constructed, and, to start, the architects had to calculate when and how the sun would rise over that hill to know when and how it would hit the hill at Newgrange. the monument itself is built on a slant over the hill. that is to say, the bulk isn’t distributed evenly over the top of the monument, but rather sits oblongly. if you were sitting next to me right now, I’d give you a little demonstration with my hands, but hopefully you get what I’m trying to explain. the chamber inside has a corbelled ceiling and rises to 6m — and has remained more or less intact and sealed against water since its construction 5,000 years ago. it’s often presumed that “neolithic” implies uneducated or unsophisticated, but as our guide pointed out, working out the details of constructing Newgrange and other nearby sites demanded incredible technological sophistication. and unimaginable dedication.

once the architects sorted the physics of where to build the monument, it took 50 years to complete construction. fifty years in a time when the average lifespan was 20 or 25 years. it took three generations to finish this! not only did it take decades to complete, the stones used on the facade were not quarried locally and had to travel rather significant distances in a time before wheels. the white ones (quartzite) came from the Wicklow mountains, some 70km south of Bru na Boinne — on the other side of Dublin. the black granite interspersed with the quartzite came from the Mourne Mountains in the north of Ireland, some 50km away. most impressively, however, the 97 large, carved kerbstones came from 20km up the Boyne valley. it took eighty men four days to transport a stone four kilometers.

there’s no record as to the precise use for the monument, and there are about as many theories as people who study the site. some are pessimistic as so the intent of the designers (it was built by slaves as a temple for despots) but others are more optimistic. our guide believes it a memorial for spiritual ceremonies that were held once a year. cremanes of community members were taken inside to a place of honor during the three days a year when the monument was used, but the rest of the year the site was left alone. and those who used the site had voluntarily constructed it for their spiritual practices.

whatever it was used for, standing inside is an incredible experience any day of the year. (they do hold a lottery every 1st of October for slots to be present for sunrise on the Solstice. there’s never a guarantee that you’ll get sun, but thousands and thousands of people sign up for the opportunity.) they day I visited was probably the soggiest day I had my entire time in Ireland, but I could not have cared less. even wandering around outside for twenty minutes (our group was far too big for all of us to fit into the chamber at once, so our guide split us in half and we were left to our own devices in the elements in the interim), the place was amazing.