A theory suggesting that kerb stone 15 at Knowth contains a carving of a swan's head and neck is examined by Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland, who finds that the theory fails on several fundamental grounds. The suggestion that there is a swan motif on K15 is not tenable.
In the summer of 2019, a theory emerged on the internet by an Irish-American writer and journalist suggesting that there was an image of a swan on kerb stone 15 at Knowth. Ben Gagnon had visited the megalithic site and, while examining a photo he had taken of K15, he flipped it upside down and saw "something no one had ever seen before – the faint but unmistakable image of a swan in profile".
Mr. Gagnon further suggested that the swan image (which is derived from what appears to be a relatively poor photo of the stone) "calls into question" the interpretation of kerb 15 as a sundial, first proposed by Martin Brennan.
Being familiar with this stone, having visited it and photographed it many times over the past 20 years, I was fairly certain there was no such swan image carved onto its surface. In any case, it would be highly unusual for there to be a representational zoomorphic image in megalithic art because such things are not usually represented – and the select examples of "owl's faces" in Irish prehistoric art are hotly disputed.
To give Mr. Gagnon the benefit of the doubt, I went along to Knowth and visited the stone up close (with the kind permission of the OPW) to have a closer look at this supposed swan motif. I recorded a video which I think you will agree firmly debunks any claim that there is a swan's head carved onto this stone. Watch the video here:
There are several real difficulties with the proposed swan image theory. The main problems are that (a) part of the swan's beak and neck are formed by a crack in the stone; (b) the swan glyph theory ignores other engravings (including other circles); (c) the theory proposes that the stone was originally upside down, for which there is no evidence.
When you look at the panel as a complete work, it is clear there is no swan image and nor was this ever intended by the artist
When you look at the panel as a complete work, it is clear there is no swan image and nor was this ever intended by the artist. The composition appears to represent a combination of symbols with ostensible calendrical themes. While there is no hard and fast rule relating to the interpretation of Irish megalithic art – because it is such a subjective area and we have no means of proving or disproving the various interpretations – this one fails for several reasons.
The supposed eye of the swan is one of a series of circles on the left side of the stone. Why pick just one and say it’s an eye? What do the other circles represent? The bird’s beak and neck are formed on one side by a natural crack in the stone, as we have discussed. Most dubious of all in relation to this claim is the fact that the stone needs to be turned upside down in order for the symbol to work.
There is considerable debate about whether certain stones in megalithic art in Ireland contain representation of owl’s faces. The experts would tell us that there are no anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representations in these ancient carvings, and yet occasionally a dissenting expert voice will suggest otherwise.*
(*For instance, P.J. Hartnett, the archaeologist who excavated Fourknocks in 1950, suggested there were several stones which had face motifs, featuring eyes and noses. In fact, in relation to “Stone A”, which was originally a passage orthostat but is now kept inside the chamber against the wall, he said he had “no hesitation in ascribing this to the anthropomorphic group of passage grave arts” and he went further to interpret it as an “impressionist” representation of an animated female figure.)
In the case of kerb stone 15 at Knowth, one of the finest surviving works of megalithic art from the Neolithic world and one of the best-known, I think we can now safely lay to rest any suggestion of a swan motif – even though it would please me greatly if that’s what it really was, especially in light of the swan myths of Brú na Bóinne and the fact that it is a significant wintering ground for the whooper swans.
Pictured above is a 3D model of kerb stone 15 created by the Discovery Programme. You can view this model and examine the carvings in detail by clicking this link: http://www.3dicons.ie/3d-content/sites/74-knowth-kerbstone15#3d-model
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.