Monday, 12 October 2015

Only the guardian of Fourknocks knows its true name

Inside the ancient stone chamber of Fourknocks, a seemingly small yet very impressive monument of the late Neolithic, there are a number of intricately carved stones, some pristinely preserved.

The lintel stone above the western recess at Fourknocks.
The modern visitor is able to see, at close quarters, the careful work of Neolithic artists, people who lived and died in a remote age, when only the most basic technologies were afforded use by human hands. At Fourknocks, the lozenge (diamond) and the zigzag predominate. The angular manifestation of the glyphs is curious. There is one stone, above the passage, bearing concentric circles, and another - the original entrance lintel - bearing a rough spiral, among other curious designs. Most of the other decorated stones are devoid of curvature, containing the distinct angles of diagonal and serrated patterns.

The stones of Fourknocks demand from us an answer, an answer to an unanswerable riddle - why is the spiral, so predominant at Brug na Bóinne, almost absent from this wondrous little passage-tomb, and why do the angles predominate? We can only answer the question with a question:

Who can know?

I have a theory. But that's all it is - a theory. Unfortunately, we cannot travel back in time to speak with the artists of the New Stone Age, whoever they were - farmers, astronomers, poets, priests or magicians. So we have to make do with our own speculations, and our own vivid imaginations. My theory is that the absence of the spiral is directly connected with the absence of the sun. No sun can shine into Fourknocks. Its passageway points to a place in the far north, some 15 degrees (approximately) east of north. No sun can enter into its cold interior. Fourknocks, whatever its other purposes might have been, was definitely not a solar observatory; not in its own right at least. (There are other mounds in the district, and who knows what secretly oriented chambers they might contain?)

The spiral is a convenient and potent symbol representing solar movement. Over the course of the year, the sun appears to wind a series of contracting and expanding spirals in the sky. At Newgrange, the great entrance stone, facing the sunrises on winter solstice, is adorned impressively with huge spirals, one of which appears to end in a line that seems to point in towards the entrance to the cave, perhaps beckoning the sun to "enter in here".

The "guardian" stone of Fourknocks, said to represent a human face.
There is no such theatrical meandering spiral at Fourknocks. Here, we see zigzag lines and diamonds, almost exclusively. Almost. There is one stone that stands out above all others. It is one of the chamber orthostats, positioned just to the right of the passageway as one looks out from the chamber. It is said, by some, to be a crude representation of the human face. Not having access to the artist, or the instruction manual from which he or she was working when they carved it, I can neither agree nor disagree with this contention. There are more angles, and diamonds, and curves. If it's a face, it's a strange one. And yet I find myself drawn to the idea that it is a type of "guardian" stone, if such a concept even existed when these structures were built 5,000 years ago. There is a stone in the western passage of Knowth that has been said, by some, to represent some type of guardian. It has an almost owl-like presence - the owl being the Cailleach of the night, its call often attributed to the Bean Sídhe, the woman who cries out before death. As a place of burial, Fourknocks might have needed just such a presence - a woman of the sídhe to watch over as the souls of the deceased crossed over from this world to the next.

Fourknocks is indeed a sad place. When it was excavated in the 1950s by P.J. Hartnett, the remains of at least 21 children were found, along with burnt and unburnt remains of adults. By the time its period of use was coming to an end, the entrance passage had been filled almost to the top with material, with three separate layers or deposits of human remains. The passage was deliberately blocked up. It was intended that Fourknocks be sealed off. And so it was . . . until the 1950s.

It is a sad fact that all of the burials/deposits were removed during the excavation. There is a sense that the monument has lost an aspect of its sacredness, that the final resting place of so many people would later be stripped out so that nothing of the burials remains.

In being sealed up, Fourknocks shares a history similar to that of Newgrange (which points towards it, incidentally). Archaeologists maintain that Newgrange was sealed for the best part of 4,000 years, until Charles Campbell and his labourers rediscovered the passage entrance in 1699. Fourknocks lay concealed in the landscape for a long time. Because it likely did not have a stone vaulted roof and thus it didn't have a large cairn covering it, it was lost to time. The name Fourknocks is said to be derived from the Irish na fuarchnoic, meaning "the cold hills". But I don't buy it. It doesn't "feel" like an authentic name for a complex of ancient monuments. And this I think its real name has been lost to time. Local historian Brendan Matthews once proposed to me the possibility that Fourknocks was derived from the "four cnocs", meaning the four cnocs or artificial mounds. That seems more plausible to me than the cold hills.

The proximity of Fourknocks to Clonalvy tempts me into looking for a link there. Clonalvy is from Cluain Ailbhe, the meadow of Ailbhe, whoever she might have been. It might also be connected with the Delvin River (Ailbine). I am curious about the mention of a possiblity that Clonalvy was the location of a monument called Lia Ailbhe, a huge standing stone described as the "chief monument of Brega", until it fell in 999 and was broken into four millstones by Máelaschlainn, the high king. That seems like an avenue worthy of research . . . for there is something that has been nagging away at me for years that is telling me to find out the real ancient name of Fourknocks.

Perhaps only the guardian of Fourknocks knows its real name?

(I will deal with some aspects of the angular art and connections to the cosmos in another post).

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