Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Into the West: Knockmany Chambered Grave

The first stop on my journey was to Knockmany Passage Grave. It’s one of those places I’ve heard about so much. It seems that if you studied archaeology in QUB at a certain time you were forced out there at knife-point every second weekend … or, at least, that’s how the story seems to be told. So, it was definitely one of those sites that I wanted to go see for myself. I followed the signs from Clogher, left my vehicle in the car park, shouldered my equipment, and headed on up the hill. I may not be the world’s fittest person, but I was doing pretty well … for a while, at least. As the gradient increased and the tripod strap dug further into my shoulder I started to reconsider my enthusiasm for this excursion. It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually told anyone where I was going. If I didn’t turn up in Sligo, how long would it be before anyone realised I was missing? As I plodded along the forestry path the trees seemed to close in and the views of the sky dimmed. How long would it be before anyone thought of expanding the search area out far enough to find my car? See - this is how stupid middle-aged men die! As I wheezed and panted my way along, the trees suddenly parted and the daylight flooded back. I felt the breeze on my face and the dark thoughts of breaking an ankle and expiring in a ditch quickly receded.

The site is a passage grave, dating to the latter part of the Neolithic period. Although the capstones have all been removed, many of the uprights survive in situ and three are decorated. The uprights are set into shallow sockets, cut into the underlying bedrock. The decoration consists of a variety of ‘passage tomb art’ motifs, including concentric circles and ziz-zag lines. Excavation of the site by Collins & Waterman in 1951 demonstrated that the chamber had originally been covered by a stone cairn, itself overlain with earth. The excavation also discovered a dark layer within the chamber, around the upright stones, that produced cremated human remains. Further burnt human bone was recovered from disturbed deposits outside the tomb. This and other layers also produced a leaf-shaped arrowhead, two leaf-shaped flakes, and a knife, all in Antrim flint. A single, rather plain and undistinguished sherd of pottery (also probably of Neolithic date) was also recovered from a disturbed layer near the top of the cairn. The cairn we see today is almost wholly reconstructed and features what amounts to a concrete tank around the chamber stones and a box skylight affair. I understand the reasoning behind the construction of this monstrosity … the stones are among the finest Neolithic carvings in Northern Ireland and, short of removing them to the Ulster Museum, they required some degree of security and protection from both the elements and potential vandals. For all that, I find it hard to find much love for this particular solution. It looks like it has more in common with the design of secure gun emplacements rather than the megalithic tomb tradition. I think that this impression is only reinforced by the startlingly beautiful image of the young Edwardian girl perched between the stones before the site was excavated and conserved. It is a Romantic vision of an accessible site in an open, unfettered landscape and very much at odds with the site as it is presented today. The other side of this is, of course, the fact that (as much as I dislike the concrete) this is probably closer to how it would have appeared in antiquity – a complete mound with limited access … but without the skylight.

It is only fair that I should, at this juncture, pause to note that the entity of my planning for visiting this site was ‘look out for the sign once I hit Augher’. That was it. I never once though that access to the interior would be restricted. So, after my near-death experience climb, I found that I was locked out – separated from the stones by a padlocked gate. In reading some of the available on-line literature (listed at the end of this post) a variety of places are listed as having keys or at least being able to provide access, though I have no idea how current any of these are. Just because I wandered up there without adequate preparation doesn’t mean that you should have to!

In reading the forgoing you may come away with the idea that I didn’t enjoy the site and don’t recommend that you too take the time to explore. It’s true that I was locked out and that the bunker was less than completely aesthetically pleasing. However, the ‘sunroof’ provided more than enough light to clearly see most of the decoration on the stones (though the glass could do with a bit of a clean). Even if there was no tomb up there, the walk is worth it just for the view out over the Clogher valley. While I may have come up here for the archaeological site, a good deal of my time was spent gazing out across the landscape. Sitting on the modern step of the bunker it is easy to let one’s mind wander to thoughts of how the tomb was built and the choices made in its location. Even more so on the realities of the ceremonies interring the cremated dead here and visiting the site … generation after generation taking a moment to pause here and look out over the landscape before, like me, heading back down the hill and away …


If you go to the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record [here] you can search for the site as TYR 059:001. The scanned contents of the NIEA’s SM7 file on the site is available [here].

Other resources: