Dating Navan Fort

By Mallory, J. P.; Brown, D. M. et al. | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Dating Navan Fort

Mallory, J. P., Brown, D. M., Baillie, M. G. L., Antiquity

Navan Fort, the Emain Macha of early Irish literary and historical tradition, lies two miles west of the town of Armagh. The importance of the site rests not only with its identification as the ancient seat of the kings of Ulster but also with its archaeological importance as one of the paramount ritual and tribal centres of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Ireland along with the other provincial 'royal sites' of Tara, Dun Ailinne and Rathcroghan. The site consists of a hengiform enclosure, some 230 m across, surrounding two surface monuments: Site A, a low ring-barrow, and Site B, an earthen mound some 50 m in diameter and 6 m high [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Both features were excavated by the late Dudley Waterman between 1961 and 1971, and an account of his excavations was completed for publication by C.J. Lynn (Waterman 1997).

The evolution of Site B has been rehearsed many times before (Mallory & McNeill 1991: 146-50; Aitchison 1994: 81-5; Waddell 1998: 334-43) and need be only briefly summarized here.

* Phase 1: An initial phase of Neolithic settlement

* Phase 2: A period of abandonment followed by subsequent ploughing, probably during the Bronze Age

* Phase 3(i): The erection of a circular ditched enclosure some 45 m in diameter which surrounded a series of about 28 substantial timber posts, believed to date to the Late Bronze Age

* Phase 3(ii-iii): The erection of a series of periodically renewed figure-of-eight structures, consisting of a smaller circular building of about 10-13.5 m diameter and a larger enclosure on the order of 20-25 m diameter. These dated to the transition between the 'terminal' Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, i.e., 4th-2nd centuries BC, and they yielded among other things the skull and mandible of a Barbary ape, an indication that Navan was probably part of a widespread system of prestige exchange

* Phase 4: A large circular structure, 40 m in diameter, consisting of 280 oak timbers with a central post dendro-dated to 95 BC (Baillie 1988)

* Phase 5: Which may have followed on almost immediately from phase 4, saw the infilling of the entire structure with limestone boulders to a height of 2.8 m, followed by the firing of the existing timber on the cairn, and then the encasement of the cairn in an earthen mound.

The structure and its encasement have been subject to various interpretations (Lynn 1992; 1994; 1996) employing both specifically Celtic and more broadly Indo-European models of interpretation. From a purely architectural standpoint there is debate on whether the 40-m structure was roofed (and if so, how?) and the nature of the interval between phases 4 and 5. Was the 40-m structure initially erected to serve as a temple or public hall and only later (though during the life-time of the timber uprights) ritually transformed into a sod-covered cairn or were the timber posts never intended to support a free-standing structure but merely to serve as the timber spine of an 'Otherworld' structure ritually encased in stone and then earth?

Although Dudley Waterman had intended to excavate the surrounding bank and ditch of the outer enclosure, he unfortunately died before this part of his project could be completed. A moratorium was placed on any further excavations at Navan until the publication of Waterman's report, but non-invasive research continued and remote sensing has uncovered the traces of a double-ringed 30-m structure (here termed Site C; [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]) between Sites A and B (Kvamme 1996; Ambos et al. 1996). This structure remains unexcavated and undated.

Because of the moratorium, there was fairly intense speculation as to the date of the surrounding outer bank and ditch, with two main schools of thought. The first suspected the hengiform enclosure to be of Neolithic date (Simpson 1989). The case for such an early date was supported by several lines of data:

a the evidence of Neolithic occupation on the site (Phase 1);

b the evidence of Neolithic ritual activity in the vicinity (the surrounding fields yielded the remains of two destroyed passage tombs);

c the morphology of the enclosure with its outer bank and inner ditch which would better have conformed to a Neolithic henge rather than a Bronze Age/Iron Age defensive site;

d the presence of pine pollen in a core (Weir 1987) extracted from the ditch as pine pollen virtually disappears from pollen spectra in the northern part of Ireland by c. …

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