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Take on natures: Memories of our ancient ancestors linger in the landscape

Intricate carvings etched into the stones built into the side of the mound at Knowth in Co Meath are 5,000-year old messages from our ancient ancestors

WHEN is a hill not a hill? When it is a 5,000 year-old burial mound, or just a mere 800-year-old site of a Norman castle.

Brú na Bóinne in Co Meath is home to Newgrange, the best known of the ancient passage tombs in the Boyne Valley, but close by is the equally impressive site at Knowth.

In many ways it is more enigmatic than Newgrange, a grass-covered mound which covers a passage tomb with 17 smaller mounds nearby. But it is the intricate carvings etched into the stones built into the side of the mound that are most intriguing – 5,000-year old messages from our ancient ancestors.

Some of the images depict a triplet of spirals that some have interpreted as symbolising Knowth, Newgrange and a third, lesser-known, passage tomb at nearby Dowth.

While some of the passages into the tomb have been exposed, Dowth has not been fully excavated and ‘restored' like its sisters.

And in some ways that makes it a much more mysterious place to visit. It looks just like a hill, set among hundreds of others in undulating countryside. For thousands of years, it, along with Knowth and Newgrange, was reabsorbed back into the landscape, its man-made origins hidden by shrubs and bushes.

However, local legends about its origins entered popular mythology and these ancient sites that were once the centre of long-forgotten religious rituals rites were associated with the ‘otherworld' and known as fairy forts.

They are located all over Ireland, many them known and logged, others hidden to modern eyes as they nestle among drumlins, in woodland and even the centre of urban sprawls.

In Downpatrick last month preliminary work on a new housing development uncovered the remains of a neolithic settlement with evidence suggesting that part of it had once been used for cremations.

The Down Recorder reported: “They were uncovered by a team of archaeologists during preliminary ground work on a five-acre site earmarked for the development of dozens of new homes. They were initially expected to be on site for a short time, but as a result of their early findings will now undertake a more detailed and lengthy exploration of the area.”

The find is in an area already rich in ancient sites, with souterrains, cairns and a stone circle all located within a few miles, as well as numerous sites linked to St Patrick who is said to have sailed along the shores of Strangford Lough and landed nearby in 432.

But it is not just ancient historical sites that have become reabsorbed into our landscape and forgotten.

Last month a Norman motte and bailey castle was discovered in the grounds of the Mount Stewart estate on the Ards Peninsula. It is believed to have been built in the 12th century but after it fell into ruin became overgrown and covered by a copse of trees.

Humans first arrived in Ireland around 9,000 years ago with the earliest civilisations replaced or absorbed by wave upon wave of invader. But while we know little of the most ancient settlers, their memory lingers in our landscape, in hills and woodlands and sometimes, if your eyes are sharp enough, in the carvings on a rock hidden in a hedgerow along the roadside.

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