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Prehistoric Britain

Encounter with the Moon Stone

by Dr David Whitehouse, 6 March 2001. Updated 14 August 2017

What was claimed in 2001 to be the oldest map of the moon ever made is reached via a narrow triangular-shaped crack in the rock of an ancient Neolithic burial mound at Knowth in County Meath, Ireland.

Dr David Whitehouse visited the site in that year, along with Professor George Eogan of the National University of Ireland. Together they edged towards the heart of the burial mound, although Professor Eogan had already been this way many times before to uncover the mound's mysteries.

The complex was constructed around 3000 BC and is the largest and most remarkable ancient monument in Ireland. Although nearby Newgrange is more famous, Knowth turned out to be an astonishing treasure trove of stone engravings and artefacts. It also has the largest collection of megalithic art in Europe, consisting of strange circular and spiral patterns that many believe to be lunar symbols.

Ancient carvings

The mound has two passages, one facing east and one facing west. They are the longest cairn passages in Europe and are somewhat difficult to crawl through.

Eventually, the narrow passage opens into the very heart of this vast ancient burial mound - a tall, central chamber. In there is one of Knowth's most intriguing mysteries: a map of the moon ten times older than anything known before - at least that was the claim when it was first discovered.

It was first identified by Dr Philip Stooke, of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and revealed in Prehistoric Moon Map Unearthed (see sidebar link, right).

Dr Stooke did not believe that no one had drawn the moon before Leonardo da Vinci's sketch dated some time around 1505. So he started searching records of ancient rock carvings and came across something remarkable when he was studying the archives of a burial chamber at Knowth.

He found that the markings in the burial chamber could be placed over a picture of the full moon and the two would line up. The burial chamber carvings were without doubt a map of the moon, the most ancient one ever found. But few people, not even Dr Stooke, had seen the moonstone for real. As Dr Whitehouse found, getting into the central chamber was a hard task even for those who had permission.

In one of four recesses that protrude from the main chamber, on a rock perhaps one metre high (three feet), markings can be seen on its surface. They had been made by 'pitting' the rock with a lump of quartz, of which there was a lot to be found in the vicinity. The pattern was hard to detect until a torch was gently swung back-and-forth in front of it.

Stars and crescents

Suddenly, the shape carved into the rock seemed familiar. Dips and crevices seemed to resemble the dark spots that can be seen on the moon with the unaided eye. It may have been a map of the moon. Certainly, there is another map of the moon in one of the other recesses.

In yet another of the recesses off the central chamber was a large stone basin thought to be where the cremated remains of the local chieftain were placed. But it was the wall behind the basin that could leave the visitor amazed. There can be seen stars and crescents. They are undoubtedly images of the moon.

Some archaeologists speculate that the passages that reach into the central chamber could allow sunlight, and moonlight, to shine down the passage into the central chamber at certain times. If this were to be true then there would have been times at which moonlight would have shone on the back stone of the eastern passage, illuminating a map of itself.

Knowth has proved to be an astonishing treasure trove
The five thousand year-old burial chamber at Knowth in Ireland has proven to be an astonishing treasure trove, even before its moon maps are taken into account

 

 

     
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