Wednesday, December 3, 2008
The Irish “royal sites” are so called because medieval Irish scholars believed them to have been the capitals of pre-Christian high kings of four of the five ancient provinces of Ireland. Croghan (Cruachain) was the royal site of Connacht, Navan (Emain Macha) of Ulster, Tara (Temair) of Meath, and Knockaulin (Ailenn, Dún Ailinne) of Leinster. No early source identifies a royal site for Munster. Various medieval texts refer to the royal sites as former royal residences and burial grounds; venues for major assemblies, including the inauguration of kings; and centers of pagan ritual. Although these sites were invoked as symbols of kingship in medieval Ireland, there is no evidence that they actually were used during the Middle Ages, and the retrospective nature of medieval references to these sites demands caution in assessing their original functions or significance. Archaeology can provide a firmer understanding, and Knockaulin, one of the two extensively excavated sites (with Navan), can serve as an exemplar.
At Knockaulin an oval earthwork encloses c. 13 hectares, with the entrance on the east side of the site. Despite the hilltop location, it was not a defensive site, for the bank is outside the ditch. Geophysical survey showed substantial anomalies only around the center of the site, where subsequent excavation produced the following (simplified) sequence:
Flame (latest): Low mound of burned material, including many animal bones, which suggests periodic feasting
Dun: Central tower and circle of posts dismantled; stone slabs and earth laid over the restricted area of Emerald-phase burning
Emerald: Perimeter wall of Mauve phase dismantled, but central tower and inner circle of posts left standing, despite intense localized burning
Mauve: Double-walled, circular timber structure, c. 42 meters in diameter, enclosing a circle, 25 meters in diameter, of freestanding posts and, at the center, a heavily built timber structure, c. 6 meters in diameter and with buttresses, that may have been a wooden tower
Rose: Figure-eight, triple-walled timber structure with a larger circle, c. 35 meters in diameter, and an elaborate, funnel-shaped entranceway; structure dismantled to make way for Mauve structures
White: Circular, single-walled timber structure, c. 22 meters in diameter; dismantled to make way for Rose structures
Tan (earliest): Neolithic trench and artifacts (fourth millennium through third millennium B.C.)
None of the Iron Age structures (White through Mauve) show evidence of residential or funerary use and must be interpreted as ritual or ceremonial in nature. The White, Rose, and Mauve entrances are oriented toward sunrise around 1 May, the festival of Beltane, the beginning of summer. Radiocarbon dates (Rose through Flame) cluster between the third century B.C. and fourth century A.D., while stylistic parallels for metalwork are mainly of the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. An 8-meter-wide roadway runs through the site entrance toward the timber structures at the center of the site. A radiocarbon sample from sod buried beneath one of the banks at the site entrance suggests that bank construction took place in the fifth century B.C.
The other royal sites share several characteristics with Knockaulin. First, all are on prominent elevated locations with commanding views. Second, all have large enclosures. Those at Navan (c. 5 hectares) and the Ráith na Ríg (Rath of the Kings; c. 6 hectares) at Tara both have internal ditches and external banks. Geophysical survey at Croghan shows a circular anomaly enclosing nearly 11 hectares, probably a silted-up ditch or the foundation for a wooden palisade. Third, the enclosures at Navan, Tara, and Croghan all have mounds. At Navan the mound (site B) has been excavated. Within the Ráith na Ríg at Tara there are two conjoined mounds, while at Croghan the circular anomaly encloses Rathcroghan, a large flat-topped mound. The postulated central timber tower of Mauve phase at Knockauliin might have been equivalent to a mound. Fourth, the roadway through the site entrance at Knockaulin, the roadways at Croghan, and the banqueting hall at Tara may have some equivalence.
Excavation produced further similarities. Navan, like Knockaulin, has a scatter of Neolithic materials, while the Mound of the Hostages at Tara proved to be a Neolithic passage grave. Excavation of site B at Navan has shown that this mound covered a complex sequence of structures. Immediately below the mound was an undoubtedly ceremonial wooden structure of concentric post circles, some 40 meters in diameter (phase 4). At an earlier stage, there had been a series of figure-eight timber structures (phase 3ii) similar to Rose phase structures at Knockaulin, although the Navan structures were smaller and might have been residential rather than ceremonial.
The suggestion that construction of all the enclosure banks and ditches dates to the Iron Age rests on the discovery, in a test trench, of ironworking debris under the bank of the Ráith na Ríg at Tara and the fifth century B.C. date from the site entrance at Knockaulin. The internal structures excavated at Knockaulin and Navan (site B), however, are far more securely dated. At Knockaulin, White through Flame phases are of the Iron Age. At Navan (site B), phase 4 is certainly of the Iron Age, for the central post has been dated by dendrochronology to 95 or 94 B.C. On stratigraphic grounds, the covering mound was not built much later. The preceding phase 3ii probably dates to the Iron Age as well. The Rath of the Synods at Tara has yielded artifacts of the first three to four centuries A.D. No dating evidence is available for Croghan.
The henge monuments of Neolithic Britain and Ireland (fourth millennium through third millennium B.C.) are approximately circular earthworks with external banks and internal ditches. Some enclose circular wooden structures and others stone circles. The similarity of the royal sites to henges can hardly be coincidental, and it seems likely that the royal sites were a revival of henges. This implies that memory of the ritual and ceremonial nature of Neolithic henges survived to the Iron Age. Finally, it is unlikely that the royal sites discussed here were unique in Iron Age Ireland. There are numerous other sites of henge form in Ireland. Many may be Neolithic, but some enclose mounds, and some have roadways, both of which suggest comparison to the Iron Age royal sites. The excavation of Raffin, County Meath, revealed what appears to be a small-scale royal site in use during the third through fifth centuries A.D.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
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Condit, Tom. “Discovering New Perceptions of Tara.” Archaeology Ireland 12, no. 2 (1998): 33.
Fenwick, Joe, Yvonne Brennan, Kevin Barton, and John Waddell. “The Magnetic Presence of Queen Medb (Magnetic Gradiometry at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon).” Archaeology Ireland 13, no. 1 (1999): 8–11.
Newman, Conor. “Reflections on the Making of a ‘Royal Site’ in Early Ireland.” World Archaeology 30, no. 1 (1998): 127–141.
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