History Files


Prehistoric Britain

Encounter with the Moon Stone

by Dr David Whitehouse, BBC News, 6 March 2001



Dr David Whitehouse comes face to face with what is claimed to be the oldest map of the Moon ever made:

Several times, I think I am stuck as I try to squeeze through a narrow triangular-shaped crack in the rock. Just ahead of me is Professor George Eogan of the National University of Ireland.

Together, we edge towards the heart of this ancient Neolithic burial mound. He has been this way many times before to uncover the mysteries at Knowth in Ireland.

The complex in County Meath was constructed in around 3000 BC and is the largest and most remarkable ancient monument in Ireland. Although nearby Newgrange is more famous, Knowth has turned out to be an astonishing treasure trove of stone engravings and artefacts.

Knowth has the largest collection of megalithic art in Europe, 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, as I am finding out, difficult to crawl through.

Eventually, the narrow passage opens into the very heart of this vast ancient burial mound - a tall, central chamber. I am about to come face to face with one of Knowth's most intriguing mysteries: a map of the Moon ten times older than anything known before - at least that is the claim.

It was first identified by Dr Philip Stooke, of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and revealed in Prehistoric Moon Map Unearthed.

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.

"I was amazed when I saw it," Dr Stooke said. "Place the markings over a picture of the full Moon and you will see that they line up. It is without doubt a map of the Moon, the most ancient one ever found."

But few people, not even Dr Stooke, have seen the Moonstone for real. As I found, getting into the central chamber is a hard task even for those with permission.

Professor Eogan gestures from the other side of the chamber, ushering me into one of four recesses that protrude from it. Crouching in front of a rock perhaps one metre high, I could see that there were markings 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 so I swung the torch around and moved back a little.

Stars and crescents

Suddenly, the shape carved into the rock seemed familiar. I cannot be certain but it looked like a carving of the dark spots that can be seen on the Moon with the unaided eye. "Is it a map of the Moon?" I asked Professor Eogan.

"It could be," he said. "Certainly, the Moon is here." He gestured towards another recess.

In another of the recesses off the central chamber is a large stone basin thought to be where the cremated remains of the chieftain were placed. But it is the wall behind the basin that leaves me amazed. There, I see 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 is true then there would have been times when moonlight would have shone on the back stone of the eastern passage illuminating a map of itself.

Back on the outside, I reflect for a few moments about the mystery of this place and what I have seen. Was it really a map of the Moon and is this place one of the most important lunar sites in the world?

Offering no answers I could see the Moon rising over the ancient monument as it has done for a multitude of centuries since the Moon stone was carved.

Knowth has proved to be an astonishing treasure trove
Knowth has proved to be an astonishing treasure trove



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