October 13:

This morning dawned crisp and cold and beautiful. There was nothing but blue sky and sunshine out my window when I rose. With the clear sky came cold, though. At least the night had been cold. My windshield was covered in a slushy frost bandit took some time to get the car warmed. I went back in for my gloves.

Having walked into Slane the evening before, I had a better sense of where I was going. That helped. I also just decided I’m going slowly regardless of the frustration of anyone behind me. That helped too.

And before I go on and on about Newgrange (and trust me, I will), I forgot today that it was a surreal feeling last night to look up into the clear, star-filled sky and find myself face to face with the big dipper, at almost the exact angle it is from my front doorstep back home. Suddenly, I felt as though I must only be in Angus (town not far from Barrie, for those of you outside the705 area code!) or something.

So, I drove along the southern bank of the Boyne river, at least I could see it from time to time. I turned into the parking lot (my first real parking lot in Ireland!) and arrived at the Visitors Centre reception. They asked if I was visiting Newgrange or Knowth or both. I said both and they whisked me down the path and pointed to where a bus was to leave any moment for Knowth.

Forgive me if you all know this already, but in case you don’t, Knowth and Newgrange along with Dowth are the three mounds that make up the Boyne Valley complex. Each of these three hills holds one large mound at its crest as well as several smaller satellite mounds. The three are spread out on three hills, separated by about a kilometre each. You cannot simply walk up to them. You enter through the visitors’ centre and are bussed to the individual sites. You most definitely do NOT drive up to them on the other roads (which the farmers who live on and work the fields all around them do) or you will be in deep do-do, and I don’t mean from the ubiquitous cows. This is Ireland's pride and joy. It is reputedly so busy in summer that unless you arrive in the first hour or two in the morning, you will probably not get to go to the Newgrange tomb itself at all. There is an endless stream of groups being led in. And each group gets only ten minutes inside.

So, off I went on the bus or Knowth. The guide here was Eomer. I’m guessing at the spelling. She pronounced it Ee-mer, rhyming with streamer. I’d say she was a university student, and a very knowledgeable one. Knowth is more complicated than Newgrange for a few reasons. First, it’s bigger. Second, inside the mound are two passages, which come within three metres of meeting one another in the middle, though that was never the goal. And third, many different cultures lived on the mound, remodelling and 'repurposing’ as my interactive developer of a husband would say, as they went. There are a lot of different layers of history tied up in this one location.

The Knowth passages are longer than Newgrange's, because the mound is bigger; Knowth's reach about 40 m under the mound. Unfortunately, all the activity byte Iron Age people, the Early Christians and the others destabilized the mound. The Early Christians even dug tunnels around the existing passages. As a result, or at least that's what they tell us, we can't go inside. They did let us take pictures down the passage though. There is less fanfare at Knowth and there were fewer people on the tour, two very positive things. I noticed one retired gentleman taking notes during the tour. That piqued my curiosity. More about him later.

I got time to ask some additional questions of Eomor and she was very helpful. The stone carvings which you’ll see on the rocks are more abundant at Knowth. In fact, of the 1200 or so examples of Neolithic artwork in the world, 600 are in the Boyne Valley and 400 are in Knowth. She explained that part of the reason we know these artworks are from the Stone Age is because of how they were created. Experts can tell they were made by hitting one type of stone with another. Stone on stone. Stone tools: the definition of Neolithic, or 'new stone age' people. I asked if anyone had a sense of how long it would take to create a single spiral or lozenge in this way. She said as far as she knew no one had ever experimented to find out. I wonder if there's some craftsmen out there who knows.

The two passages at Knowth are almost aligned so that sunrise on spring equinox shines into the east passage and sets in the west passage. I say 'almost' because scientists say the alignment is out by 11 degrees. They say it wouldn't have worked. But maybe we’re just missing something. When Newgrange was first excavated they said its passage wouldn’t have worked exactly either. Then they realized that the relationship of the sun and earth had changed by 0.5 degrees, shifting the light beam ever so slightly. It doesn't work exactly for us now. It worked perfectly for them when they built it. So, Knowth doesn’t quite work with the spring equinox sunrise and set. My friend Martin at Carrowkeel would say, what about moonrise? And I wonder about that now too. Maybe we’re just misinterpreting. We’ll never know.

At Knowth, the top of the mound was were those later cultures I mentioned built their settlement, even fortifying it for protection. During the excavation and 'rehabilitation' of the site, they built a staircase to the top of the mound. It isn’t that far up, but what a view when you get there.

Now, I keep talking about passages and you may be wondering what these passages were for. Many people refer to these mounds or complexes as passage tombs, or passage graves. Although these passages were open for hundreds of years and some obvious looting was done, when scientific excavations were carried out, starting in 1962, there were still cremated remains in the chambers as the ends of these passages. The east passage at Knowth goes in 40 m and ends in a small chamber. The west passage ends in a distinct chamber at the end as well as onion the right and one on the left side. Looked at from above these chambers forma cruciform shape, kind of like the structural design of most Catholic churches, though they (the passages, not the Catholic churches!) have nothing to do with Christianity.

In each of the four chambers at Knowth, there was a large carved stone basin. It is in these basins that archaeologists tend to find the cremated remains. The basin in Knowth's east passage was no longer in the chamber. Somebody in the past 5000 years liked the look of that basin and thought they’d take it out. What they didn’t realize is that the basin went in the chamber before the roof went on the passage. There was no way to get it out through the passage. But they tried, and left it stuck about a third of the way along. With some of the other basins, they simply smashed them and removed the pieces. Who knows why? So, the cremated remains went in the basin. They suspect this wasn’t the final resting place. The satellite mounds had many more cremated remains within them. The big mounds only had remains of, say, five or six people. It could be that the remains were in the big mounds or a special ceremony, then removed to the other mounds. Or that only very important people were left in the big mounds. There are lots of theories.

What’s amazing to me (okay, most of this stuff is amazing to me?) is that experts can look at these remains and tell us so much about the people. From the pitted bone of the eye socket, we know they were deficient in certain vitamins. From the look of the hip joint we know they were prone to arthritis. From the ground surface of the teeth (which don’t burn very well, as we all know from murder mysteries) we can tell that they ate flour that had small bits of stone ground with it. Tasty.

Back to the passages for a minute. People tend to get stuck on the part about the cremated remains, which is why these structures are known as passage tombs. It is just as likely that they were used for all kinds of important ceremonies, not just funerals. If you think of them as the Stone Age equivalent of churches, you’re probably closer to their true usage.

Well, I feel as though I should erase the blackboard and say, 'Class dismissed.' There is just so much that is fascinating about these sites. I haven't even begun to tell you how much effort and time went into building them. That’s tomorrow’s lesson! : )

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