Exploring Waterford's Ancient Monuments
A Closer Look At Knockeen Dolmen
Knockeen portal tomb is undoubtedly one of Waterford’s finest prehistoric monuments. This wonderful compilation of megalithic stones is indeed an impressive sight, particularly for the first time visitor as they stand and ponder beside the huge weighty stones balanced above.
The tomb, which is set in a quiet rural landscape, survives as true testimony to the remarkable skills of its builders having stood solidly down through thousands of years since its construction.
But like many prehistoric sites it raises questions as to its function or functions in prehistoric times. When excavated, many of these portal tombs have revealed evidence of burials. But did these striking megalithic structures have other uses. Was their location in the landscape of strategic importance and were they also used as a place of ritual at certain times of the year.
This article sets out to take a closer look at Knockeen and documents some interesting features about the tomb and its surroundings. It doesn’t proclaim any substantial theories but simply speculates here and there about the characteristics which have been observed and what they might possibly represent.
Firstly, (and appearing quite obvious) the entrance of the tomb seems to have been deliberately constructed to align with the rock outcrop of Sugar Loaf (arrowed below) which rises on the horizon 1 km away to the North West. This natural feature is what gives the townland its name with “Knockeen translating as “Small Hill”. The rock is 90 metres in height which makes it 60 metres higher than where the portal tomb is located.
With the tomb entrance facing NW, there is the likelihood of both solar and lunar alignments between the monument entrance and the rock outcrop. This direction would indicate the possibility of the setting sun of Summer Solstice and also Full Moon alignments in both February and June as well as the sun setting place of Cross Quarter days (Bealtaine and Lughnasa).
However, the perimeter bank of the graveyard with its overgrown scrub and trees, obscures this direct line and the possibility of accurately observing such events, but the alignment between monument and landmark can be clearly seen if one ascends onto the larger capstone.
Alignment of tomb with Sugar Loaf outcrop
This capstone is of particular interest, having three distinct grooves/slots cut into its upper surface towards the SW facing side. These curious markings are well weathered and don’t appear to be modern. The total length of the three slots is 76 cm with a spacing of 250 mm and 240 mm between. Each slot, which is roughly 7.6 cm long and 1 cm in depth is offset from the other. What is interesting however, is that when viewed in a line from the base of the SE slot to the tip of the NW one, they form a direct line towards the Sugar Loaf. What were these intriguing markings and what did they represent?. The theories could be endless but one could easily begin by thinking they were used perhaps for measurement purposes or were indicators of some kind. However, there is one strong possibility - that is that these marks could have been left as a result of a stone splitting technique used around 5,000 years ago. Very similar marks can be found at the famous megalithic sites of Carnac in France.
The stone also has traces of a rough straight line descending down its surface sloping towards the SE.
The lower capstone is also interesting. On closer examination it appears to have a at least three shallow circular depressions which very much resemble Cupmarks that appear to have been unfinished. In overcast light they are practically non evident, but when viewed in oblique lighting conditions such as in Winter, the are quite distinguishable.
On the subject of the capstones, another obvious question comes to mind - why were two capstones used in the construction of the tomb, surely one would have sufficed like so many other Dolmens.
Clockwise - Slots on Capstone, Top of Door-stone, Possible Cupmarks
Then there is the interesting 'Keyhole' entrance (left photo below) on the SW side which does have a similar counterpart, (though smaller) on the opposite side of the monument. It is generally thought that this was an entrance through which offerings for the dead could be brought into the chamber or was a means of access for Shamans or early Druids to commune with the supernatural. However, this is quite a small opening and it does also raise another question. Was the tomb originally covered by a Cairn of stones or earth. At one time, most archaeologists seemed to agree that Portal Tombs were indeed covered and what remains today is the skeletal frame of much a bigger monument. However, opinion on this has changed somewhat in recent times and many now believe that some Portal Tombs never had a covering at all. If Knockeen was once covered by a cairn then this Keyhole entrance would have to be clear of covering to facilitate entry. Perhaps it was partially covered or maybe what we see today is the same monument as it looked originally some 4,000 years ago.
The Door-stone (2 pictures below) is particularly interesting and does have a certain presence within the monument. It appears to have been shaped to form sloping shoulders and has a smooth surface on both sides of its long axis. The stone is free standing and doesn’t support any other stone in the construction.
Interestingly, the top of it slopes gently from NE to SW, and as it does, it aligns almost precisely with the similar tilt of the small capstone at the rear as illustrated by the lines in photo below.
This leaves a very narrow slit (photo above) which could have been a means of letting in a light source, which if the angle of inclination was precise, would strike the roof of the rear capstone which is facing in an upward direction, perhaps then throwing light down into the chamber. This is purely conjecture, and much again would entirely depend on whether the tomb was within a Cairn or not.
In certain lighting conditions, there seems to be very faint markings (lines and dots) on the interior side of the Door-stone. However, it is very difficult to say if these were created by hand or were just naturally formed.
There is definite small triangle but this appears to be modern graffiti, as some name initials can be clearly seen on the surface close to it.
It is also worth considering the possibility that this stone could have been originally a singular Monolith and that the monument was constructed around it. One could almost say with certainty that it would have been necessary to have it in position before the orthostas (uprights) and capstones were set in place. Like the majority of Monoliths, the stone’s orientation is NE –SW.
Here at Knockeen like many other Prehistoric burial tombs, one finds quartz stones, with at least two of a good size remaining among other loose stones at the tomb’s porch-like entrance. It is thought that in Neolithic Atlantic Europe white quartz pebbles were used as talismans, perhaps representing the soul of a person.
Finally, Knockeen is within sight of another of Waterford’s other well known monuments. From here, the site of Harristown passage tomb can be seen on the distant horizon about 10 km away ESE.
Keyhole entarnce Door-stone Facing NW Doorstone inside tomb
To conclude, and having visited the site on number of occasions, my one overriding impression is that the Sugar Loaf outcrop most likely played an important part in the lives of the Neolithic people of the time in this area.
The sacredness of rock outcrops, mountains and high places, often used for ritual, has been widely acknowledged around the world. Here too, this was probably the case, with the suggestion of a strong link between the Sugar Loaf’'s rocky profile and what must have been an important burial tomb.
Perhaps this eminent prehistoric site was constructed in a precise way by a people who so long ago, fervently sought to understand life and death, the earth and the heavens above.
Today, all we can do is contemplate on a place where members of a deeply spiritual society once paid homage to their dead ancestors and also may have accurately observed glorious fireball sunsets or the heavenly sombre light of full moons which marked the path of time and the rhythm of their earthly lives.
Besides being an outstanding monument of its type, Knockeen raises interesting questions. Maybe in the future some of the them will be answered.
Capstones from the South East
Article first published March 2012
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