Discovery - Archeology

Encounter with the Moon Stone

Map Martin Byrne
The Moon map is outlined in red in this image
(Picture by M Byrne)
BBC News Online science editor Dr D. 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 is Professor G. Eogan of the National University of Ireland.

Moons BBC
The crescents are undoubtedly images of the Moon
Together, we edge towards the heart of this ancient Neolithic burial mound. The professor has been this way many times before to uncover the mysteries at Knowth in Ireland. 

The complex in County Meath was constructed 5,000 years ago and is the largest and most remarkable ancient monument in Ireland. Although nearby Newgrange is more famous, Knowth has turned out to be a truly astonishing treasure trove of stone engravings and artifacts. 

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, extremely 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 10 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 by BBC News Online in 1999. 

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.


Maps BBC
A real Moon map is compared with the Knowth markings

"I was amazed when I saw it," Dr Stooke told BBC News Online. "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 who have 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 meter 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.

Dark BBC
Not many get to come this way
"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. But it is the wall behind the basin that leaves me amazed. There, I see a multitude of stars and crescents. They are undoubtedly images of the Moon.

Some archaeologists speculate that the passages that reach into the central chamber were originally constructed so that sunlight, and moonlight, would at certain times shine down the passage into the central chamber. 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 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?

Knowth has proved to be an astonishing treasure trove