Context is Layered - Making Sense at Knowth/Cnogbha

September 24, 2009

When you visit Knowth, you stand amidst “passage tombs,” most likely built over 6,000 years ago. Surrounded by massive kerbstones featuring neolithic carvings, these magnificent structures have survived civilizations and North Atlantic weather. Passage tombs are burial mounds that some believe were meant to be transition points for ancient souls, so called because they feature a single passage to the center of the mound.

Built around 3200 b.c., these predate the Giza pyramids and Stonehenge, and there are over forty across Ireland,. Cremated remains were found in them, but no one knows the significance. Large “kerbstones” ring the larger of these, with neolithic, highly abstract art. Symbology whose meaning was lost along with the civilizations who built them.

(Much later, as we got back to the rental car, the radio beeped on occasion, telling me helpfully “No TP, No TA.” It struck me that I was just as lost to understand this message as I was trying to interpret the spirals from 6,000 years back.)

The message, the meaning of these structures, however, goes beyond grave sites, and has been forever lost – but clues remain for many researchers to ponder. The use as a lunar calculator may be one of the more useful – and that researcher emphasizes his point by detailing how Knowth can be used to predict when Easter will fall for the coming year; making more than one point in his conclusion.

For Knowth, we learn the arrival of the Iron Age civilization (the Celts) meant a militarization of the structures, as the high ground they afforded provided an irresistible defensive point. They dug deep ditches into the edges, wounding some of the passage structure, but accidentally preserving some of the more interesting kerbstones. The graves found that reflect this period feature females for the most part – with the odd inclusion of two decapitated males buried with a gaming set. The “ring forts” of this era are apparently, in part, the re-purposing of these passage tombs.

By 1142, the Christians were adding settlements atop the mounds. This occurred along with the establishment of a monastery at Mellifont, itself dissolved in 1539. The Protestant landed gentry took ownership of the lands until the current Irish Republic government took over the maintenance and management.

We appear to be the first civilization to issue tickets for the mere privilege of viewing these relics – therefore, our purpose is most greatly served by preserving or restoring the relics to their original state. The context for what is “original,” however, remains layered. In order to understand what we see before us, we must first understand the many civilizations who lived and died at Knowth. The result is a fragmented understanding, with our filters applied to each – the Stone Age rituals layered with Celtic warriors, monastic settlers, landed gentry, and tourism attractors.

When it came to explaining the stone carvings, some of which appear on the hidden side of these boulders, the guide asked us to consider what sense the images made to us. “Your guess is as good as anyone’s.”

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