Thursday, July 18, 2013

Navan Fort Visitor Centre, County Armagh

 One of the most important sites in prehistoric Ireland, Navan Fort (also known as Emain Macha) is an incredible place of mythology and archaeology. Like The Hill of Tara, one of the other great ‘Royal Sites’ of prehistoric Ireland, Navan Fort is part of a large and complex landscape of monuments in an area steeped in the legends of Ireland. It was said to be the capital of Ulaidh and home of the great Ulster Warriors of the Red Branch, Emain Macha was also the seat of King Conor MacNeasa and it is entwined with the story of the great Cuchulainn – Hound of Ulster, who discussed epic battles and heroic campaigns here. The importance of legends relating to Emain Macha lived on through time – the famous Brian Boru spent a night at Navan Fort in 1005 to prove his worth as High King of Ireland. In 1387, Niall O’Neill chose Navan Fort as the location for a house where he could entertain guests – hoping to impress them with his wonderfully historical location.
However, in the 1960s this important site came under threat as a local quarry that was located very close to the northern part of the site, wanted to expand. The quarry was already located adjacent to Loughnashade (or Lake of the Treasures) so any expansion would have meant certain destruction of archaeological deposits. An archaeological team headed by Dudley Waterman began the enormous task of excavating the site, to try to understand more about life in one of Ireland’s most important Iron Age royal centres, and to try to assess how the physical remains could match the historical and mythological descriptions.

They discovered a large enclosure that encompasses an area of around 6 hectares, at the heart of the enclosure there are two visible monuments; a large circular mound and an earthwork known as a ring-ditch. The information that came from the excavation of these features gave a startlingly complex story of activity that stretches over millennia. However the main activity on site seemed to centre around the Iron Age, around 2100 years ago in 90BC.

A huge wooden temple was constructed at the summit of the site, using over 280 large wooden posts.
Reconstruction model of the enormous wooden temple
Strangely there is no evidence to say that anyone lived in this massive structure. Instead shortly after its construction, the temple was filled to the roof with a cairn of limestone rubble, then the wooden structure now completely filled, was then burned down and the remains of the cairn were carefully covered with a mound of soil. This unusual and unparalleled activity is one of the great mysteries of prehistoric Western Europe. Why did they go to this incredibly time consuming labour intensive trouble of building a structure of enormous dimensions, only to then fill it with stones and destroy it by burning? What Gods were they hoping to placate? For what reason? Theories in archaeology abound about this strange behaviour, though no-one can say with any certainty the reason behind it. It is often the case in archaeology that by excavating a site you end up with more questions than you had before you began, the mound at Navan Fort is certainly a great example of that!
Poignantly, the excavators also discovered the skull of a Barbary Ape in Iron Age deposits at Navan Fort. This ape came from Northern Africa or Gibraltar, and no doubt was a little bewildered to find itself in (comparatively) cold and wet Armagh. This ape would have been an object of huge curiosity and was likely to be a treasured possession of the ruler at Navan Fort, who would have shown off his ability to trade with far flung and exotic places. More artefacts of immense importance were discovered in the ceremonial pool, Loughnashade. Four beautifully made bronze horns / trumpets were discovered in 1798, along with a quantity of human bones. These trumpets were the largest prehistoric horns ever found in Ireland and are thought to date to around 2,000 years old. Of the four trumpets unfortunately only one survives today, the other three have disappeared. From the surviving trumpet replicas have been created, to hear what these ceremonial trumpets would have sounded like check out this YouTube video and just try and imagine yourself as a homesick Barbary Ape

We will never truly understand all the secrets of Navan Fort but it is certainly well worth a visit as it is a site that has retained its importance through the centuries. Simply by standing on the summit of the remains of that large temple looking out over the landscape, one can understand how this became known as the great home of the Knights of the Red branch and how it was immortalized in tales of heroes. We strongly recommend paying a visit to the excellent visitor centre, where you can enjoy an exhibition and audio-visual that describes what was found during the excavations.

There are also wonderful living history displays where you can experience life during the Iron Age and guided tours to the site are also available. To find out admission prices and more information please visit

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