Ireland’s First Astronomers: Rethinking The Past

The Great Mound: The great mound was built over 5,000 years ago, probably after the construction of Newgrange. The Great Mound at Knowth is similar in size to Newgrange and is surrounded by 18 smaller satellite mounds. The Great Mound has two passages with entrances on opposite sides, the western passage is 34 metres long and the eastern passage is 40 metre long, ending with a cruciform chamber.

Kerbstones : At the base of the main mound there are 124 surviving Kerbstones. The kerb is roughly circular and measures 80 metres (east-west) by 95 metres (north-south).

Calendar stone: – Kerb stone 52 at Knowth appears to demonstrate that the people of the Neolithic were competent astronomers who had made observations over great periods of time and were able to pass on their astronomical knowledge from generation to generation. The Calendar Stone presents a format that can be used to track the synodic month, and from it we can obtain very important calculations of large subunits of the 19-year Metonic Cycle of the

Lunar Maps at Knowth – the carvings on orthostat 47 at the end of the chamber in the eastern passage have been identified by Philip J. Stooke as lunar maps. The right-hand section appears to be a map of the lunar maria. The remaining two sections of the carving are simpler but crudely similar to the first, sharing the overall arc shape of the maria surrounding the lunar central highlands as well as an isolated spot representing Mare Crisium.

A naked eye map of the moon (left), a carving from Knowth Orthostat 47 (right) and the two superimposed (centre) to illustrate their similarity. 

Rethinking The Past: This very brief introduction to Knowth is taken from the excellent website You will find more detailed information there, but this only scratches at the surface of what Knowth is. Here we have a site that dates back to at least 3000 BCE where we find multiple recordings of the Moon and Sun throughout the year. Drawings which indicate that Neolithic man not only attempted to capture the qualitative aspects of the Sun and Moon but the quantitative details of the cycle of their movements. The engineering in the construction, the detail in observation and the determined focus to observe the skies for what had to be generations in order to identify the predictive, repetitive nature of the Sun and Moon paints a very different picture of Neolithic-stone age man to the one we often imagine: A low intelligent, knuckle dragging early human who acted only on instinct and reflex. Instead we see a community of people that showed great artistic and architectural skills, who were not just aware of their surroundings but had the self-awareness to believe they could somehow comprehend their surroundings.

The carving on orthostat 47 is believed to be the earliest representation of the Moon’s surface. Amazingly, for all it’s centrality to human life over the millennia, the Moon’s actual markings were never really recorded prior to the work of William Gilbert (1540-1603) who was a physician to Queen Elizabeth I and is more famously remembered for being the discoverer of terrestrial magnetism. So Knowth takes the date of the earliest map back a whopping 4,500 years. Astronomy in Ireland continued through the millennia as is evident from the many standing stones, stone circles and various other ancient structures throughout the Island. The astronomical work being carried out in Irish Universities today, truly has a very long, if not the longest, of traditions.

Shots taken on a recent trip to Knowth.

  Kerbstone 05
Kerbstone 17

Knowth attracts visitors from all over the world. I met this lovely family from South America who came to Ireland for an extended visit.

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