2003:1414 - KNOWTH (Site M), Meath

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Meath Site name: KNOWTH (Site M)

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 19:69 Licence number: 02E0726

Author: Geraldine Stout, Archaeological Survey of Ireland and Matthew Stout

Site type: Large enclosure and Burial ground

Period/Dating: Multi-period

ITM: E 699611m, N 773446m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.701200, -6.491435

The site is located in a natural marshy basin drained by a stream running eastwards into the River Mattock and located immediately north-east and downslope of the passage tomb cemetery at Knowth, Co. Meath. A central focus of the site is a large enclosure first shown on the first-edition OS map (1836) as a 'fort' within an extensive area of marsh. The large enclosure comprises a roughly circular area (internal diameter 80m) surrounded by two banks and a ditch. Its interior has an uneven surface and is raised in the centre. Stones protrude from the sod, north and south of centre. Within the enclosure are the remains of a slight silted ditch (diameter 67m, width 2.3m), which is eccentrically located within the enclosure. There are a number of gaps in the banks, the largest in the south-south-east (11m wide). In the field west of the large enclosure is a ring-ditch (diameter 10m), which is overlain by a rectangular enclosure and is associated with a pair of curvilinear banks and ditches.

The first season of excavation (Excavations 2002, No. 1484) identified two main phases of activity: the earliest, of probable Neolithic date, is associated with a linear trench and a cluster of pits; the second is associated with a trivallate enclosure of probable Early Christian date which has produced habitation debris and an impressive array of personal items, including glass beads, a lignite bracelet and part of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon gilt bronze strap mount. The objectives of the second season were to define the limit, sequence and function of the pits exposed in 2002 and to investigate the interior of the innermost enclosure to identify the source of the habitation debris and to determine the function of this triple-ditched enclosure. The nature of the Anglo-Saxon evidence on the site also needed to be assessed.

During the month of July 2003, four 5m squares (A–D) were excavated in the centre of the innermost enclosure. The previous year's Cutting 2 was extended eastwards (i.e. Square E). The main features exposed were 30 shallow burials concentrated in an area of 15m2. These were extended inhumations in linear pits running roughly east-west, except for one which runs north-south. In two instances, there was more than one skeleton in the grave. This may be the result of recutting and reuse of the same site and indicates that individual graves were not clearly marked. There was no evidence for any stone setting, except for one burial which may have been covered by stones. No grave goods were found, except for fragments of quartz in three cases, a piece of slag and a stone ball at the neck of one inhumation.

The interior of the innermost enclosure was partially excavated to determine the function of the triple-ditched enclosure. Excavation revealed a high concentration of burials in the eastern half of the innermost enclosure. The burials follow a Christian ritual and are therefore unlikely to be any earlier than early medieval in date (radiocarbon dates are pending). They are extended inhumations in a cemetery, aligned roughly east-west and unaccompanied by grave goods associated with domestic activity.

By the 7th/8th century the standard formal burial rite in Ireland was that of extended inhumation, orientated east-west, with the head at the west (O'Brien 2003, 67). Burials were interred in familial cemeteries in and around prehistoric monuments. At nearby Knowth passage tomb, extended inhumation burials were inserted as late as the 7th and 8th centuries AD (O'Brien, 2003, op. cit.). It was not until the 9th century that burial in Christian ecclesiastical enclosures became the norm. Burials in secular habitation sites are referred to in early Irish literature and are known from the archaeological records (O'Brien 1992, 134). At Dooey, Co. Donegal, and Millockstown, Co. Louth (Manning 1986, 135-81), burials were located in an enclosed habitation site. These burials may represent such an ancestral cemetery.

The relationship between the innermost enclosure and the outer ditches at Site M still has to be determined. In Ireland there are numerous examples of pennanular burial enclosures that are datable to the 7th century (i.e. Westereave, Co. Dublin, Colp, Co. Meath, and Kilcullen, Co. Kildare). External influence from the Anglo-Saxon world is seen as a highly possible source for such a burial practice and in south-east England a large number of pennanular burial ditches datable to the Anglo-Saxon period have been recorded (O'Brien 2003, 69). Many of these Irish sites, including Knowth Site M, have proved to have Anglo-Saxon links in the early medieval period.

The excavators wish to gratefully acknowledge funding support by the National Monuments Section, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, on the recommendation of the National Committee for Archaeology of the Royal Irish Academy.

Manning, C. 1986 Archaeological excavation of a succession of enclosures at Millockstown, Co. Louth, Proc. Royal Irish Academy 86, 135-81.
O'Brien, E. 1992 Pagan and Christian burial in Ireland during the first millennium AD: continuity and change. In N. Edwards and A. Lane (eds), The early church in Wales and the West, 130-7. Oxford.
O'Brien, E. 2003 Burial practices in Ireland: first to seventh centuries AD. In Downes and A. Ritchie (eds), Seachange: Orkney and Northern Europe in the Later Iron Age AD 300-800, 63-72.

Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dún Scéine, Harcourt Lane, Dublin 2 and St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin