Friday, December 26, 2008

The Mound of the Hostages (Irish: Dumha na nGiall) is an ancient passage tomb located in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, Leinster, Ireland.

The mound is a late Mesolithic or early Neolithic structure, built between 2500 and 3000 BCE. It is circular in form, roughly fifteen metres in diameter and three metres high. It is built in the same style as the Newgrange tomb, although on a smaller and less awe-inspiring scale. The structure is dome-shaped with an inset for the entrance and a small doorway, set almost one metre into the side of the monument. The doorway is framed with undecorated standing stones and faces directly east. As seen in similar passage tombs, this alignment allows for the rising sun to shine down the passageway during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, illuminating the chamber within (compared to the alignment of the Newgrange passage, which is set to the rising sun of the Winter Solstice). Inside, the passage into the Mound of the Hostages stretches for four meters in length, one meter in width, and is 1.8 meters high. It contains decorated sillstones with images of swirls, circles, and x-patterns--designs associated with Mesolithic passage tomb art. Three compartments once housed buried remains.

The mound was used for burials from the early Neolithic up to 1600 - 1700 BCE. There are an estimated 250 - 500 bodies buried in the mound, organised into layers under the passage. The dead were most often cremated, and their ashes and grave goods spread on the floor of the tomb. These grave goods include decorative pottery and urns, stone beads, and bone pins. The remains were then covered with stone slabs. With this method, layers of ashes and stone built up over time and successive burials. More burials occurred at this site in the Bronze Age, and space in the passage eventually became unavailable, so the bodies were then placed in the mound itself. Over 40 remains have been removed from the mound. They had been buried in the Bronze Age style, with inverted cinerary urns placed over the cremation ashes. The full body of a Bronze Age adolescent was also discovered in the mound. The body was placed in a crouched position in a simple pit dug in the mound. Grave goods found with the body include a decorated bead necklace, a bronze knife, and a bronze awl--a suggestion that he was a person of some importance.

Unlike some similar structures, there is no evidence of a ditch dug around the mound. The Mound is situated north of the King’s seat and Cormac’s house (teach Cormaic) and slightly south of the Rath of the Synods. The top of the mound is the highest point on the hill, and offers unrivalled views of the surrounding countryside.


Tara is a prehistoric sacred site in County Meath that held a powerful place in the early medieval Irish imagination and acquired national significance as a symbolic center of sovereignty and over-kingship. Tara’s ritual importance to ancient peoples rested in its situation, which provided commanding views over an agriculturally rich landscape. It is a ridge 2 km long, rising to a height of 155 m, unimposing from the east but affording extensive views over a great part of the central plain from the west, while further afield Mount Leinster, the Slieve Blooms, and the Mourne Mountains are to be seen. Taken together these features place Tara in visual contact with one-fifth of the surface area of Ireland. To early farmers it was an ideal venue at which to intercede with the gods for the fertility of the lands below.

Little is known of the earliest monument on the hill—a large, possibly palisaded enclosure dating to the Neolithic—but comparable sites in Britain were used for seasonal gatherings. This was replaced around 3000 B.C. by a passage tomb, known today by its medieval name as the “mound of the hostages.” The tomb is oriented to the east, and alignments have been observed with the full moon of Lughnasa (August) and the rising sun of the festivals of Samhain (November) and Imbolc (February). One of the side stones of the passage is decorated with concentric circles and zigzags, typical of passage-tomb art. The tomb was used for communal burial, and some 1000 pounds of cremated bone were recovered, estimated as representing about 200 people. The artifacts included passage-tomb pottery, decorated stone pendants, stone balls, and mushroom-headed bone pins, the latter two of which are thought to have a fertility significance. Aligned onto the mound of the hostages is a linear earthwork known by its medieval name as Tech Midcharta (banqueting hall). It is unexcavated, but it is thought to be a ceremonial avenue or cursus of Neolithic date, although some scholars have expressed the view that it may belong to the Iron Age modifications of the hill. Some forty burials of Early/Middle Bronze Age date (c. 2400–1400 B.C.) were inserted into the mound of the hostages, showing that it remained an important monument, while dozens of small barrows (earthen burial mounds) were also erected across the ridge at this time. Little is known about the burial customs of the Late Bronze Age, but Tara evidently remained a sacred site, as is shown by the discovery there of two great gold torcs dating to around 1200 B.C., which were deposited as a votive offering.

During the first century B.C., the hilltop was rearranged and the summit was enclosed by a great ditch with an external rampart. This monument is known by its medieval name as Ráith na Ríg (fort of the kings). In fact it was not a fort, but rather a ritual enclosure that included within it the mound of the hostages as well as the Forrad and Tech Cormaic. The Forrad is a flat-topped mound, enclosed by two banks and ditches, built over earlier Bronze Age barrows, and which probably played a role in inauguration rituals. A granite pillar in the centre of the Forrad is supposed to be the Lia Fáil (stone of destiny); its phallic shape indicates that it is a fertility symbol. This accords well with one of the traditional attributes of kingship and with the inauguration ceremony, with which it was linked according to medieval lore. In medieval Irish mythology Tara was connected with the god Lug, who was the divine manifestation of kingship, and with the goddess Medb, the embodiment of fertility.

Tech Cormaic is a ringfort adjoining the Forrad that may have been inhabited in the early middle ages. Definite evidence of habitation on the hill during the early centuries A.D. was uncovered when the ringfort known as the Rath of the Synods was excavated. This revealed four major phases of activity, during which the use of the site changed from a cemetery to a ceremonial enclosure, then back to a cemetery before finally becoming a ringfort. Several of the finds were high-status, imported objects from Roman Britain, dating mainly from the second to the fourth centuries A.D.

There are no descriptions of actual inaugurations at Tara, and it is thought that the Feis Temro (assembly at Tara) was a celebration held at the height of a king’s reign. The last assembly was held by Diarmait mac Cerbaill in 558/560, and celebration of the event seems to have declined as conversion to Christianity increased. When Tara is mentioned by Muirch around 680, it was already an abandoned, legendary place— the caput Scottorum (capital of the Irish) associated with a powerful pre-Christian kingship. From the seventh century onward, medieval historians developed the theme of Tara as the seat of the high kings of Ireland, a concept that was intimately connected to the contemporary ambitions of the Uí Néill and that provided them with the legitimacy of tradition, albeit an invented one. The title of rí Temrach (king of Tara) was applied to an over king, although from the time of Máel-Sechnaill I it was gradually replaced by that of rí Érenn (king of Ireland). In 980, Tara was the setting for an important battle in which Máel-Sechnaill II defeated the Scandinavians of Dublin, and it was during his reign that the Dinnsenchas Érenn was compiled. Tara comes first in the account, and the detailed description of the hill is effectively a survey of the earthworks that were visible at the time.

After the coming of the Anglo-Normans Tara fell into the hands of the de Repentini family, and a church is first mentioned there in 1212, when it belonged to the House of the Knights Hospitallers at Kilmainham. It functioned as a parish church until the sixteenth century, when it fell into disrepair. The iconic status enjoyed by Tara in recent centuries rests largely on the literary skill of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (written c. 1634–1636), in which he formulated and popularized the idea of Tara functioning continuously as a national institution from prehistoric times into the middle ages.

References and Further Reading

Bhreathnach, Edel. Tara, a Select Bibliography. Dublin: The Discovery Programme, 1995.

Bhreathnach, Edel, and Conor Newman. Tara. Dublin: The Stationery Office, 1995.

Newman, Conor. Tara, an Archaeological Survey. Dublin: The Discovery Programme, 1997.

Roche, Helen. “Excavations at Ráith na Ríg, Tara, Co. Meath, 1997.” Discovery Programme Reports 6 (2002): 19–165.


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