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 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. Muiris O'Sullivan says that the large design was added later, but that it respects the outline of the spiral on the left. 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.
Kerb stone 86: The emblems on this stone are referred to by archaeologists as "opposed Cs". This reductive term diminishes what is clearly an embellished and developed form. These are not like other Cs at Knowth, and they are not supposed to be viewed, in my opinion, as merely ornamental glyphs or decoration. The abstruse forms on many of the stones at Irish megalithic passage-tombs don't often lend themselves easily to convenient, rational or plausible interpretation. But this does not mean that we should give up too readily on the possibility that they are intended to present a vivid meaning. As an astronomer, I might see crescent moons. And I believe the moon is ubiquitous in Irish megalithic art. But no – in this stone, I see much more than that. I might see the arc of heaven. I might see the Milky Way, in all its glory, stretched in a spectacular arch across the ceiling of the night. I might see this milky road of the stars, this bright way of the heavens, reflected on earth by the Boyne river, which loops magnificently around the great monuments of Brú na Bóinne. In old times, the Milky Way was known in Irish as Bealach na Bó Finne, the Way of the White Cow. The names of the river on earth (Ábhainn Bó fhinne) and the 'river' in the sky had a similar derivation. The arches remind me of representations of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, stretched out like the Milky Way in a giant arced form. Do these carvings on kerb 86 represent the notion of Heaven's Mirror – As Above, So Below? Is the sky reflected on the ground. Is the line in the middle representative of demarcation, the liminal boundary or space between heaven and earth? All of the symbols are enclosed in a giant cartouche, perhaps indicating the cosmos as an entity with limits – something that ends where the stars are fixed, and where the souls go after we gently place their remains into the stone chambers. Or is this stone's symbolism representative of opposed worlds (or even mingling worlds) rather than opposed Cs. Underworld, overworld. This world, the otherworld. Earth, heaven. Ground, sky. Conscious realm, unconscious realm. Reality, fantasy. Objective, subjective. Tomb, womb. So say what you C. Because if you don't, someone else will. Someone else will C what you don't C ...
(The above is a truncated version of chapter 2.3 from my book Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past).