Ancient Sites | Knowth kerb stones: megalithic art gallery

Knowth contains around one-third of all known megalithic art in western Europe. There were originally 127 kerb stones. Of the 124 that survive, 90 contain lavish carvings. It is a Neolithic art gallery - a c. 5,300-year-old exploration of the arcane symbols of a mysterious culture that flourished in the Boyne Valley. Here, Anthony Murphy explores the art on many of Knowth's kerb stones.

Kerb stone 4: A large spiral is flanked by nested arcs on the left and right and, further to the right, a large series of concentric circles. On the upper part of the stone there are serpentine waved lines which may have served as counting devices.

Kerb stone 5 at Knowth is one of my favourites. The giant spiral with crescentiform motifs either side are accentuated by the darker and somewhat smooth, almost polished-like surface of the stone. Several interpretations have been suggested for this stone. One is that it represents the phases of a total solar eclipse, with the moon before crossing the sun on one side and after transit on the other. Is is, perhaps, a representation of the passages of Knowth, which face in opposite directions, approximately east and west, pointing at the sun?

What do you think it means, if anything?

Kerb stone 7 at Knowth contains a number of large double concentric circles. On other stones, these are seen to represent the fuller phases of the moon - in fact on kerb 52 there are seven, representing the week during which the moon grows from waxing gibbous phase to full moon and then into the waning gibbous phase.

Kerb stone 17: The largest motif on this stone is the great undulating serpentine wave across much of the front face. There are other, smaller serpentine waves too. These are not, of course, zoomorphic glyphs – there were never snakes in Ireland. Instead, they are likely to be counting devices. The spiral on the right of the large waved feature suggests a concern with solar movement.

Kerb stone 30, Knowth: Archaeologists refer to the central motifs on this stone as "Opposed Cs", but perhaps they are crescent moons, denoting the first and last days of the lunar month. 

Kerb stone 34: Interesting here is the large spiral motif which is superimposed on a number of double concentric circles.

Kerb stone 38: Another Knowth kerb stone upon which the spiral emblem dominates. This is another pair of interlocked summer-to-winter spirals. If you follow the spiral in the same direction as the sun's movement (i.e. from left to right or from east to west), the spirals wind inwards towards the centre. To the left is a series of zigzags delineated by a line, all contained within a crude cartouche. The zigzags appear to form triangles, such that it is difficult to ascertain what was intended by the artist - chevrons or triangles (perhaps both?). Beyond this, to the left and lower left of this group, are two small circles. Above the zigzag compound symbol, a little to the right  of the large natural fissure in the stone, is a loose winter-to-summer spiral. To the right of the main interlocked-spiral emblem are a series of zigzags or chevrons. Immediately above these is a very small pair of interlocked summer-to-winter spirals – a bit like a miniature version of the main emblem. To the lower right of the main emblem, and difficult to see in this photograph, is a very small and crude summer-to-winter spiral which has been effected using much smaller pock marks than the other glyphs on the stone. It is interesting that stone 38 is on the southern perimeter of Knowth's kerb, not quite facing due south but not far off it. This stone would receive the light of the sun on every day of the year, if cloud was not an issue.

Kerb stone 51, Knowth. The huge, flourishing spiral in the centre of the stone is, in fact, two interlocked spirals. The curious split or division of the form at lower centre is interesting and mysterious. The emblem invites us to speculate about what might be represented - the coming together of cosmic bodies, perhaps; the sun and moon maybe, winding their curious paths through the sky, waxing and waning through the weeks and months.

Interestingly, Martin Brennan suggests that there are crescents emerging from the spirals, and its location immediately adjacent to kerb stone 52 (the 'Calendar Stone'), indicates a similar calendrical concern in his view.

The loosely-wound spiral to the left of the main emblem bends in the opposite direction to the main spirals, and in fact touches or joins the outer limits of this emblem. The serpentine feature on the far right of the stone invites us to consider counting - but counting what?

The stones of Knowth are a considerable enigma. A walk around its kerb is a journey into unknown realms of the ancient human mind.

Kerb stone 56 at Knowth, where the spiral form predominates. The spiral is ubiquitous at Brú na Bóinne. I take it to represent solar movement. The winding of the spiral – inwards and outwards – can be seen as representing the expansion of the solar arc, and the contraction, between the solstices. The sun forms a low arc in winter and a much higher, larger arc in summer. The spiral might be an effort on the part of the Neolithic artists to represent the movement from winter to summer, or from summer to winter, in one continuous form. On the day this photo was taken, the sun was illuminating the panel of carvings exquisitely from an acute angle. The myths of Brú na Bóinne suggest a concern with the sun and its movements. Dagda, the chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann deities, was said to be the builder and owner of Newgrange, and the one who distributed the various other sídhe (mounds) to his fellow deities. He was also known as "deirgderc", meaning "red eye" and he controlled the weather and the harvest. As Eochaidh Ollathair, he was the horseman whose horse pulled the sun around the sky. Read more about these attributes of Dagda and his connection with the Late Neolithic monuments in my new book about Dronehenge and the other structures on the floodplain of the Boyne at Brú na Bóinne, The book is due to be released at Samhain.

This page was last updated on Wednesday, 11th September 2019 @ 21:01:26