Hilltop fort from 1200 BCE uncovered in Ireland

Sunday, November 16, 2008

An artist’s impression of the hilltop fort dating from 1200 BC which was uncovered recently near Innishannon by archaeologists from UCC.

Archaeologists from University College Cork have uncovered the oldest hilltop fort in Ireland on a ridge near Innishannon overlooking huge tracts of County Cork and believe that it was the first capital of Cork. According to Prof. William O'Brien of the Dept. of Archeology at University College Cork, the oval-shaped hilltop fort near Knockavilla, Innishannon, overlooking the Lee Valley, was built over 3,000 years ago, making it the oldest known prehistoric hillfort in Ireland. "For many years, an ancient enclosure, known locally as the 'Cathair' was known to exist on the ridge overlooking Knockavilla on the northern side of Innishannon parish," said Prof. O'Brien, adding that radiocarbon dating revealed the site was built around 1200 BCE.

Prof. O’Brien led a team of archeologists on an extensive survey and excavation of the 169-metre high site over the past three years and the team is currently writing up its report which they hope will help persuade the government to declare it a national monument. "This is a particularly significant site. It dates from some 500 years before the Celts arrived in Ireland, so it was built by the indigenous Irish. Its antiquity and size, covering about eight hectares, suggest it was one of the most important prehistoric settlements in the south west."

There were no professional standing armies in late Bronze Age Ireland. "Essentially it would have been built and defended by people who were farmers for most of the year, but who owed loyalty to their chieftain," the professor said. Professor O’Brien’s team think the ringfort was built in a very short time, possibly even within a couple of months. It would have been back-breaking work and its construction would have involved certainly several hundred, if not thousands of people. A ditch was built outside the first circular wattle fence defence. The second defence was a circular mound topped with massive oak palisades. "The ditch would have been dug primarily into rock. There were no iron tools at the time. They probably would have had to lever the rock out. That would take a lot of serious effort," Professor O’Brien said.

The hilltop fort defences included an outer enclosure measuring 1.02km in perimeter and surrounded by a stone faced field bank which was topped with a wattle palisade and an inner 0.8km enclosure, comprising an earthen and stone bank topped with a heavy oak palisade. "The original hillfort entrances were located on the western side of the hillfort, where a gated passageway was found in the palisaded bank of the inner enclosure," said Prof. O'Brien, adding that the use of timbers in the palisade may have given rise to the local townland name. "The townland name for the area is Clashanimud - the trench of the timbers - and the discovery of these massive timber fences around the hill raises the intriguing possibility that the townland name, Clashanimud may be connected to this Bronze Age site."

The late Bronze Age period in Ireland was a period of great political turmoil and endemic warfare, marked by the emergence of chiefdom societies whose territories centred on hilltop forts located in rich agricultural lands. "There would have been hillfort groups up in the area which is now Limerick and Tipperary, or even Kerry, and they would have been in warfare with this Cork political group," he explained. "Arguably, this was Cork’s first capital, but our excavations reveal evidence of deliberate burning of the inner palisade fence shortly after the hillfort was built and this appears to have been a deliberate act of war and it was never re-built or occupied after its destruction."

Sources: Irish Examiner (21 August 2007), The Southern Star (1 September 2007)


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