Recent Excavations and Speculations on the Navan Complex. (Special Section)

Article excerpt

Emain Macha, the legendary seat of the kings of Ulster, has long been identified with the Navan complex, 2.6 km west of Armagh. This complex comprises more than a dozen proximate, in some cases presumably associated, prehistoric monuments (Warner 1994). Excepting a number of outlying monuments, the major portion of the Navan complex is anchored between two large enclosures, each with adjacent sites associated with votive depositions in water. On the east is Navan Fort defined by a hengiform bank-and-ditch enclosure some 230 m across and containing two field monuments: Site A, a ring-work c. 50 m across with a low rise in the centre, and Site B, a 6-7-m high mound (FIGURE 1). At the eastern base of the drumlin on which the enclosure sits is Loughnashade, a small lake from whose marshy edge four large Iron Age horns, at least one of which bore La Tene decoration, were recovered in the late 18th century (Raftery 1987). The western monument is Haughey's Fort, a trivallate hillfort whose elliptical shape has a maximum diameter of c. 340 m (Mallory 1995). At the northeastern base of the drumlin on which the fort is sited is the King's Stables, a Late Bronze Age artificial pool from which both animal and human remains have been recovered (Lynn 1977).


A chronological sketch of the development of the complex begins with the Neolithic which is attested by pits containing both Modified Carinated bowls and flints (Navan, Site B, phase 1) and two destroyed passage-tombs to the north of Navan. Subsequent activity is indicated by plough marks in the soil overlying the Neolithic pits (Navan, Site B, phase 2). The main indication of Bronze Age occupation is to be found at Haughey's Fort where high-precision radiocarbon dates from the three ditches and the interior of the site suggest occupation c. 1100 BC with probable abandonment by c. 900 BC (Mallory 1995: 85). Radiocarbon dates place the adjacent King's Stables in the same period. Also about this time (there is ambiguity in the radiocarbon dates) Navan (Site B) saw the erection of a ditched enclosure (c. 39 m diameter) with an internal ring of large post uprights (phase 3(i)). This area was subsequently filled with a series of figure-of-eight structures (c. 400-100 BC; phase 3(ii)); Dudley Waterman also uncovered a portion of a triple-walled circular structure of possibly the same date under the low mound at Navan, Site A (phase A). At Haughey's Fort there was some evidence (several irregular pits containing iron objects/scraps and glass beads) for minor occupation in the period c. 400-200 BC. In the 1st century BC the figure-of-eight structures were cleared at Navan (Site B) and the area was filled with a circular timber structure, 40 m in diameter, and constructed from c. 269 oak uprights (phase 4). This structure was subsequently encased in limestone boulders, its outer timbers fired, and then the stone cairn was covered with sods to form an earthen mound (phase 5). More recent excavations of Navan's outer enclosing ditch have revealed that this too dates to the 1st century BC (Mallory et al. 1999). The four Loughnashade horns from the adjacent lake should also date from broadly the same period. Subsequent activity within the Navan complex is dated to the Early Mediaeval period.

The publication of Dudley Waterman's excavations at Navan Fort (Waterman 1997) has served as a watershed in Navan research and the purpose of this paper is to highlight very briefly 10 of the more interesting or enigmatic discoveries and problems of interpretation that have emerged since Waterman's book went to press.

1 Ditch stakes (Haughey's Fort)

Four seasons were devoted to excavating the eastern periphery of Haughey's Fort where trenches cut the outer, middle and what was presumed to be a terminal of the innermost ditch (Mallory et al. 1996). The latter comprised a small portion, c. 2 m long and 2.3 m deep. Protruding out of the relatively flat base were three series of upright stakes or rods, apparently arranged in pairs (FIGURE 2); lying near but not attached to each pair of stakes was a thicker rod or tree branch, including a substantial birch branch buried in section. …