Celtic

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Most of the earthworks on the Hill of Tara are thought to have been dwelling or feasting places. A long depression runs up the hill from the road towards the Mound of the Hostages. The two sides are high, presumably man-made, earthen banks. This is known as the Banqueting Hall, and for years kids were told it may originally have had wooden walls and a roof. However, this interpretation may have been due to the existence of a seating chart for an ancient King’s banquet, and is likely a good example of people naming a feature to fit in with available relics. A more-likely explanation for this long earthwork is that it may be the remains of one of the five roads that were said to lead to Tara from the five corners of Ireland. It’s easy to see how it could have been a ceremonial entryway, with the high earthen embankments on either side, complete with “windows,” gaps that may have allowed views of significant local landmarks such as the Hill of Skryne on the other side of the Boyne valley, the various tombs of former kings, and possibly a few standing stones.

Artists' Impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara c.

Artists’ impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara, c.1200 BCE
(Photo credit: RTE/Secrets of the Stones documentary)

“The Arena”/Ireland’s Stonehenge

Magnetic gradiometry and other non-invasive survey techniques have recently revealed the remains of a huge structure at Tara. Under the tall grass and several feet of dirt lies a deep ditch dug into the bedrock of the hill. The ditch runs in a circle around the site for about 170 meters (about the length of two football pitches!), encompassing the Mound of the Hostages (and probably the original site of the Lia Fail as well) and the present-day church grounds. This ditch seems to have been surrounded on both sides by an enormous “fence” of huge wooden posts. Circles of wooden posts are not uncommon at this time (1200BCE) — remains of one much-smaller circle have been found and partially reconstructed nearby at Newgrange — but the scale of this one is off the charts. Interestingly, the “banqueting hall” appears to terminate directly at the edge of this ditch, perhaps suggesting the hypothesis that it was a road or ceremonial entryway is more likely.

The exact purpose of this arena (or “woodhenge” as it has been dubbed) is unknown, but as it enclosed the burial chamber known as the Mound of the Hostages and then later the Christian church was built within its boundary, this would suggest it had deep spiritual significance to generations of people. It’s not known what, if anything, was placed on top of the wooden posts, but that hasn’t stopped fanciful artists depicting it as an Irish Stonehenge, with two concentric circles of wooden posts topped with horizontal wooden beams. It’s estimated that at least 500 immense (and old judging by the size of the post-holes) trees would have been required to provide the beams.

One theory holds that the remains of deceased Kings and nobles may have been left to rot inside the arena. Once the flesh was stripped from the bones by decay or birds, the bones would be separated and interred within the mound of the hostages. There is ample evidence of this practice of defleshing a body before burial from elsewhere in the country. Another interpretation is that the aspirant King needed to make a circuit of the arena as part of the spiritual journey toward kingship.

The RTE documentary "Secrets of the Stones" discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

The RTE documentary Secrets of the Stones discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

500 years later, around 700BC, an iron age ring fort — simply a large, thick wall of dry-stacked rocks surrounding a building or buildings — was built on the Hill of Tara. This was an advance over the old raths, which were simply a deep ditch with the earth removed and piled up in a bank behind. This represented the labor of many people working together to transport rocks from a larger area and construct the thick protective wall. By this point, the wooden posts surrounding the ceremonial ditch would have rotted away, and evidently the people of that time did not valued the structure enough to replace or maintain it, although the importance of the top of the Hill of Tara appears to have remained undiminished.

This new ring fort was every bit as large as the fenced ditch, but surrounded the top of the hill more exactly (the ditch and ring of posts was on a slight slope). It encircled the rath of the kings and also reclaimed the mound of the hostages. In light of this series of constructions on the Hill which all incorporated the mound of the hostages, it’s obvious how important the inhabitants considered their ancestors, regardless of whatever changes occurred in their mode of worship.

 

Notes

This is the final part of a series of posts about the Hill of Tara.

Part 1: A Brief History of the Hill of Tara…

Part 2: The Mound of the Hostages…

Part 3: The Lia Fail…

 

 

From Falias was brought Lia Fail which is in Temair,

and which is used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland.”

Lebor Gabala Erenn

 

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background. (Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background.
(Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com)

On top of the Hill of Tara, in the middle of the rath known as An Forradh, “The King’s Seat,” there stands a large carved stone. This is the Lia Fail, the stone of destiny, one of the powerful totems the Tuatha de Danaan, the god-like ancestors of Irish Myth, are said to have brought with them to Ireland. Legend has it that when the kings of Ireland assembled at Tara to choose a new Ard Ri, or High King, the stone would shout its approval when the candidate touched it. This was one of what appear to be several trials a would-be High King had to pass.

Two standing stones in the  churchyard of St. Patrick's Church on the Hill of Tara. (Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com

Two standing stones in the churchyard of St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara.
(Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com

 

Standing Stones

Another was driving his chariot through two nearby standing stones which would jump out of the way if he was worthy. There were traditionally a number of standing stones around the hill, but few now remain (at least overground). Two still stand side by side in the adjacent churchyard — one featuring a very-weathered sheela-na-gig carving. However, there does not appear to be space between them to drive a chariot through.

The Lia Fail originally stood near the Mound of the Hostages, but was moved to its present position in 1798, to mark the graves of 400 rebels who were buried on the hill after a battle.

 

Controversy

Whether this is the real Lia Fail or simply one of the other standing stones the annals tell us stood around the Hill of Tara is a matter of some conjecture. One theory holds that the original Lia Fail was stolen and brought to Scotland, where it became known as the Stone of Scone, and has been used to crown Scots and English monarchs ever since — Oh, we Irish never tire of bashing the English. Another story holds that the real Lia Fail was hidden away for safekeeping until Ireland is ready for a High King again — if so, it’ll have a long wait.

Note
This is the third part of a series looking at the Hill of Tara.

A few miles south of Navan, Co. Meath lies the Hill of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland.

Unlike our modern conception of a capital city, however, Tara appears to have been a symbolic or ritual capital, rather than a large center of commerce, administration, and public life. Evidence of extensive dwelling space or large-scale defensive earthworks have not been found, suggesting its use was primarily ritualistic: it was where one went to be crowned, set down laws, or settle disputes.

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King.

The archaeological remains suggest that the settlement was never more than a small cluster of hill-top raths, various wooden buildings and animal enclosures alongside some sacred monuments. The population would have swelled for feasting or other ceremonial occasions, but otherwise the hill may have sustained a much smaller number of inhabitants, possibly druidic caretakers and masters of ceremony.

Seat of the High King

Its Irish name is Teamhair na Rí, the Hill of the King, but it’s important to note that the high kingship was not hereditary — although many high kings would have liked to make it so — and different families from all over the country held the high kingship over time. This was probably only possible because Tara was a neutral or communal space.

When you stand on the top of the hill on a clear day, you can easily see why the site was of such significance to the early Irish. From the hill top one can see the other major hills in the midlands and east of the country, many of which boasted settlements or culturally significant tombs: the Hills of Slane, Skrne, and Tailte, the Hills of the Witch/Slieve na Callaigh near Oldcastle, The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath, and Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. A bronze-age chieftain standing on top of his rath would have felt he could see the entire country from that point. It’s no wonder they came to think of themselves as the High King. The passage tombs of Newgrange and Loughcrew (if not others) were specially topped with white quartz to be seen glittering at a distance. On feast nights, the bonfires from these and other hilltops would probably have been easily visible, giving a feeling of solidarity and community to those watching from the best vantage point, the high ground: Temair, the Hill of the King.

Tara was the seat of the High King at least from the Iron Age through to the Norman Invasion (1st through 12th centuries) and a place of importance long before that. Ancient legends name Tara/Temair as the seat of the the king from the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan, and its symbolic importance endured long after the High Kings were but memory, with the patriot Daniel O’Connell choosing Tara as the site of an enormous political rally (drawing three-quarters of a million people, by contemporary accounts) in 1843. The recent outcry over the encroachment of a new motorway across the hill’s boundary showed that even in the modern world, Tara retains an emotional importance for the country.

Maps are essential when planning an Irish vacation.

Old Map of Tara.
(Photo credit: wikipedia commons)

Monuments/Ruins

There are visible remains of almost 30 man-made monuments around the hill, and traces of as many more can be detected under the vegetation using modern non-invasive survey techniques. All of the buildings on the Hill of Tara — except of course the modern church — seem to have been wooden and have now rotted away. Archaeologists have found post holes and evidence to suggest huge structures, possibly for banqueting and hosting important meetings. The remaining evidence of inhabitation are large earthen ditches and banks, known as raths, which were built up around the dwellings.

Ráith na Ríogh/The Rath (Fort) of the Kings is the largest and most-visible of these enclosures, an iron-age hill fort containing two smaller raths. This is thought to have been the most-important rath within the settlement, the house of the king, and this enclosure takes up the summit of the hill. This rath is relatively speaking a latecomer to the hill top, enclosing several much older and more more significant monuments, including the mound of the hostages and the lia fail. I find it curious that in the later days of high kingship, no king attempted to fortify Tara, even the Normans — who built motte and baileys on every high point they could — respected the sanctity of the hill.

Outside the Rath of the Kings lies several other raths, or bank and ditch enclosures. Several are thought to have enclosed the dwelling places, and others to have been tombs. (Unlike Newgrange or Knowth, there has been comparatively little modern excavation at Tara.) Between the walls of the modern churchyard and the mound of the hostages there lies a seemingly chaotic series of mounds and ditches, known as the Rath of the Synods. These are the remains of another mound within a circular rath, which was crudely excavated by British Israelites at the turn of the last century hunting for the Ark of the Covenant. The same group of amateur archaeologists blew up the passage tomb at Dowth during their quest, and probably did more to destroy Ireland’s ancient heritage than any other group since the Vikings.

The church is now a visitor center for the Hill of Tara.

St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara
(Photo credit: Neil Forrester/wikipedia commons)

Christianity on the Hill of Tara

The importance of Tara is illustrated by the siting of an early Christian church among the more-ancient monuments atop the hill. The early Christians were adept marketers, and knew that they needed to adopt many of the practices and customs of pre-Christian spiritual practices in order to win converts. The usual tactic was to build a church or hold services on sites important to the ancient Celts. The current church is naturally named St. Patrick’s Church, but it has been deconsecrated and currently serves as a visitor center, although a couple of services are still held there annually in continuation of a ritual tradition that spans at least 5000 years.
Tara is the site where St. Patrick is said to have converted the High King Laoire, paving the way for the conversion of the country. In brief, Patrick is said to have lit a pascal fire on the hill of Slane (or possible at Brú na Bóinne), thus incurring the wrath of the High King, who reserved the honor of lighting the first Beltaine fire (the Celtic feast co-opted as Easter). Laoire’s druids are said to have warned him that that fire must be extinguished or it would burn forever, but rather than punish Patrick, the King is said to have been converted by him instead. This tale is generally considered to have been cooked up by Patrick’s hagiographers, rather than being literal fact, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming an important part of the Tara myth.

 

Note
[It would take an immense post to cover all the significant monuments and history of the Hill of Tara. As internet attention spans are short, I’m splitting this topic into a series of posts. Join me tomorrow when I’ll cover the oldest and possibly most-significant monument on the hill, the Mound of the Hostages.]

 

There are weird and unearthly places where the known laws of physics do not seem to apply. Naturally, Ireland has more than its fair share of them.

Magic Roads 403x403My first memory of the “fairy hill” phenomenon is as a child, reading an Enid Blyton novel in which there is a hill on which all cars stutter to a stop. Another such phenomenon is the fabled river where water runs upslope (such as at Fore Abbey) or the road where a car will roll uphill. There appears to be one of these oddities in most countries. (I came across a stream in Western NC many years ago that appeared to flow uphill — but strangely I’ve never been able to find it again.) Needless to say, Ireland has several of these magical spots, in fact Ireland appears to have more of these gravity-defying wonders per square mile than any other country.

One, known locally as “The Magic Road” or “Magic Hill,” is in Co. Louth, near the Long Woman’s Grave in the Cooley Mountains. The American actor-turned-TV-presenter Andrew McCarthy recently featured this stretch of road on his show (video below). The Cooley penisula is an area of long association with legends and magical folklore. Much of The Tain takes place here, there are several neolithic tombs in the area (including the highest one in all Ireland on Slieve Gullion), and one of the oldest churches in the country is nearby at Killevy. Oddly, the agencies responsible for promoting the Ring of Gullion make no mention of the “Magic Hill” in their pamphlets, but then again, hordes of tourists stopping on a back road to try and make their car roll uphill really has disaster-waiting-to-happen written all over it.

Here’s a clip of Andrew McCarthy’s take on the “Magic Hill”:

 

Another “Magic Hill” can be found in the Comeragh Mountains of Co. Waterford, about ten miles north from the coastal town of Dungarvan. Along the road to Mahon Falls you appear to crest a hill and travel down into a valley. Near the foot there’s a Wishing Tree/May Bush on the left. Stop next to this tree, [Update: somebody has helpfully carved “Magic Road” into a rock by the tree, so people don’t get too lost. I should take bets on how long it’ll take local kids to move the sign elsewhere to confuse the tourists.] put the car in neutral, take you foot off the brake, and it appears you’ll find the car rolling uphill all the way back to the corner. (Don’t forget to put your blinkers on to warn other motorists you’re acting strangely.)

A YouTube video of people experiencing the effect in the Comeraghs:

The folkloric explanation for these magic spots appears to be that you’ve trespassed on sacred fairy land and the Fey are pushing you away. This makes me wonder if the phenomenon was well-known before cars came on the scene, or if this is just another example of our love of yarn-spinning. Did horses get pulled back upslope by their wagons if they idled to nibble the grass in the same spot?

The Mahon Falls waterfall has a couple of different explanations doing the rounds according to locals. One blames the local council (politicians are second only to the English for being made scapegoats for any ill in Ireland) for building a road through a fairy glen in order to bring turf from a nearby bog. The fae then cursed the road in revenge, causing everything to go in reverse, and preventing the cut turf ever leaving the bog. However, some of the turf must have been removed from the bog somehow, because in 1943 a large load of this turf was delivered to Ballybricken Jail in Co. Waterford. On the night of March 3rd, the old wall of the jail collapsed, killing 10 people. Some attribute the infamous Waterford jail disaster to the fairies curse.

Another, more scientific-sounding theory seems to appeal to younger generations less interested in fairy stories: this is that there’s a huge seam of copper under the road, and that this magnetically pulls the cars back uphill somehow.

The more rational-sounding explanation is quite simple: these are actually optical illusions. The roads only appear to be going downhill because of the surrounding landscape. The distant horizon is not visible at these spots, so the eye takes its cues for what is a flat surface, an up- or a downslope from the relationship between the visible landforms. These two roads appear to be going downhill, but really they’re each a gentle upslope, so when you stop your car and remove the brake, gravity takes over and pulls you gently backwards down the slope, even though to onlookers you appear to be traveling uphill.

Be that as it may, I don’t intend to let the apparent scientific truth deprive me of an unusual experience. Next time we’re home, both of these spots are on the travel itinerary. (If anyone has good directions to either — or to one of the other two “Magic Hills” in Ireland — please leave a note in the comments.)

The Lia Fail with the mound of the hostages in the background.

Sounds like souvenir hunters chipped off some pieces of the Lia Fail recently. Reminds me of the woman said to have stolen enough rocks from the “Quiet Man” cottage to build a fireplace in her house in the US. It’s a shame as well as a crime. It seems as if we enjoy quite unprecedented access to historical sites in Ireland, and actions like this will only encourage the OPW to control access, and remove what can be removed to museums.

LinkInvestigation after Hill of Tara monument vandalised – RTÉ News.

Cairn T, on Carnbane East, near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. The entrance is locked in this picture, but guides are present for much of the summer months.

About 6000 years ago, construction began on a large complex of passage graves atop three hills near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. Known as Loughcrew or more picturesquely as Sliabh na Callighe/The Hills of the Witch, these are relatively small cairns (in relation to the famous passage grave sites at Brú na Bóinne), but what they lack in size they make up for in number (30), several of which feature carvings and contain triple (or cruciform) chambers. One of the largest, known as Cairn T, is illuminated by the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The passage is very short, the back of the chamber a mere couple of meters from the entrance, but this tiny chamber is heavily carved, and the slab illuminated by the sun contains many enigmatic images and symbols.

As well as the usual circles surrounded by rays (often thought to represent stars or the sun), and groups of semi-circular lines and various shapes (which some have suggested may be calendars or some form of scale) there are what appear to be child-like depictions of flowers and leaves, perhaps trees. Alright, that’s my own theory; but, given that the equinoxes represent the pivotal points in the natural cycle (spring for planting and autumn for harvesting) it makes sense to me. However, there are probably as many opinions as there are observers, so I’ll reserve judgement until I have a chance to watch the carvings emerge from the darkness with the sunrise on some future equinox.

The rear of the chamber at Cairn T, in the Loughcrew complex in Co. Meath. Somebody seems to have used chalk to better outline the carvings, and the green may be some mold or lichen growing due to the damp conditions in the cairn.

Today, Loughcrew is off the major tourist trail and definitely one of the lesser-known passage grave complexes, but it’s thought that at one time it was extremely important. The hills on which the main cairns are located are called Carnbane East and West; in Irish, that translates as white-cairn. There are walls of white quartz running around some of the fields on these hills, stones that are believed to have been taken from the cairns when the English passed laws requiring the enclosure of agricultural land. As we’ve seen at Newgrange, some passage graves were covered with white quartz, which would have glittered in the sun and drawn the eye for miles around — in the same way that Renaissance Christians built cathedrals to inspire awe at first glance. Perhaps these tombs enjoyed a similar level of importance in prehistoric society? Cairn T is also known as the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla, the learned judge who codified Ireland’s ancient Brehon laws, and was presumably an important man who could conceivably have had his ashes interred at a significant site.

The blessing of Loughcrew’s relative anonymity is that anyone can show up at sunrise on the equinoxes and watch the illumination take place. It apparently lasts for almost an hour, and as the rear of the chamber is clearly visible from just outside the entrance, there is no need for a lottery to get inside. In the summer months, an official guide is resident on Carnbane East to admit visitors to Cairn T and tell them the history of the site. I hope whoever manages to be there for the equinoxes enjoys the show, and the rest of us can use the equinox illumination as a reminder that it’s time to get on with our planting or harvesting.

I stumbled across this old article from National Geographic that touches on the theory that Ireland may have been the model for Plato’s tale of Atlantis. Makes one wonder what the original source material Plato was working from contained. We lost so much ancient history when the Library of Alexandria burned. It’s an interesting idea, but not compelling. Would love to see a documentary where these ideas are teased out comparing the text to the archaeological remains.

Link: Atlantis “Evidence” Found in Spain and Ireland

I’ve been intermittently pursuing a minor historical mystery since visiting the Narrow Water Castle in Warrenpoint, Co. Down last summer. Across the river (as you can see from the photo at the top) a rather cool-looking round tower was peeking out of the woods, shadowed by a mini-tower on the muddy river bank (far left of the photo). The Narrow Water Castle is a pretty awesome place: they have a murder hole, a garderobe (medieval toilet — guaranteed to fascinate the elementary school set), and a gorgeous setting where the Newry river enters Carlingford Lough and then forms the Irish Sea, so I didn’t really think about much the round tower except as backdrop. Later I thought I should find out some more about that tower.

There’s a good website for tower spotters, roundtowers.org, that lists all the round towers in Ireland — at least the surviving ones — but I couldn’t find a tower listed in that part of Co. Louth. No problem, there are other resources, but again nothing listed this tower. I checked Google Earth, just to make sure I wasn’t mis-remembering the location. I Googled “round tower” with the name of every townland in the area, but found nothing except a couple of photos of “a round tower near Omeath” (the nearest village) on Flickr. So I appeared to have a round tower that nobody, except a few photographers, seemed to care about.

Finally, the “mini round tower” down by the river gave me a clue. Who builds a miniature round tower at the edge of a river in the shadow of a real one? Why build such a thing? Well, presumably as a marker for shipping, right? Then I found a different view of the mini tower and saw a solar panel hanging off the front. Then it clicked into place: this is a pair of lighthouses built to look like ancient round towers — one 16 feet tall and one 49 feet.

As we’re living in the internet age, there’s a lighthouse spotters database (actually a couple of them) where I learned these are the two “Newry River Range” Lighthouses, solar-powered channel markers built in the shape of round towers. It turns out there was a trend for building lighthouses to look like round towers in the late 19th century. Who knew? So there you have it: When is a round tower not a round tower? When it’s a lighthouse.

Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Bru na Boinne

Peter Jackson could have filmed the Hobbiton scenes around Dowth. It’s that beautiful.

Dowth is one of the three tombs in the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site, situated on a slope rising from the river Boyne near Slane, Co. Meath. In contrast to the other sites at Brú na Bóinne, Dowth is not restored and beautified, but this is a plus as some feel Newgrange and Knowth are a little too well-manicured (and it seems fitting, given that Dowth is derived from Dubhbadh, meaning darkness). Also, access to the Dowth site is free and not controlled via the visitor center. After a morning spent being shepherded around the other two sites, everyone will revel in the freedom to explore Dowth and the ruined churchyard beside it on their terms.

Dowth was once a large mound like Newgrange (possibly of of a taller, conical shape, if old illustrations are to be credited) but amateur archaeologists (although treasure seekers would probably be a better description) damaged the mound severely in the 19th century, and at another point it was used as an easy source of stone for building projects. Miraculously, despite these desecrations, two passages remain intact, although both are tight, cramped and safely locked to keep the public out. (Although you can see some of the carvings inside one of them in this documentary.)

Visiting Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth

Newgrange as seen from the top of the Dowth mound.

The mound is just off the road; a simple road sign points the way through an old iron gate. Like much of Ireland, parking is on the grass verge along the edge of the road. As you walk along the path towards the mound, the side of the mound that has been dug away is clearly visible. The rim of the mound remains in a horseshoe shape, and the views of the Boyne valley and Newgrange from the top are excellent. Children love to scramble up the mound — but beware of the thick clumps of waist-high weeds growing in the center; these are stinging nettles!

As you walk around the site in a counter clockwise direction, you come upon two low stone-lined entrances, of a size better suited to sheep than humans. (In fact, you’ll probably share the site with sheep, as Dowth, although owned and managed as a heritage site by the state, allows the local farmers’ sheep to graze around the mound — a not uncommon arrangement given the vast number of ancient ruins in Ireland.) These are the entrances to the smaller of the two burial chambers. It’s rather unusual to find two separate entrances to a single chamber; perhaps this reflects a change in burial ritual during the building of all three monuments or perhaps one afforded entrance for people, and the other allowed the passage of the sun for some ritual reason?  Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, which were built to allow people to walk more-or-less standing up, this passage is tiny, designed for crawling only. The chamber is a short distance from the entrance, and you should have enough light to see inside fairly well. Be sure to take a few pictures holding your digital camera , the flash will show detail you miss otherwise. This is one of those times you’ll be grateful you have a flashlight in your pocket.

Like Newgrange, the South chamber is aligned with the winter solstice. However, a recently planted row of trees on the neighboring property are gradually impeding the sun, and will likely eventually block it altogether. At the back of the south chamber is a convex stone which is reputed to reflect the sunlight back against some carvings on the other side of the chamber. As the chamber is locked year-round, I have sadly been unable verify this phenomenon. It should be noted that the roof of this chamber had caved in — a legacy of the quarrying, maybe — and was rebuilt with concrete at some point in the past, so it’s not known how much later interventions has altered the precise layout of the chamber.

The curious aspect about this chamber is that the setting sun illuminates it not just on the winter solstice, but from sometime in November through February. This suggests the sun alignment had some other purpose than simply celebrating the return of the sun at the solstice.

When you’re done looking into these entrances, look over your shoulder and you’ll see a concrete “bunker” at the edge of the field, covered by a thick wire cage. This is the entrance to the second and third passages — one of which is believed to be a souterrain, an underground storage space or place of refuge, rather than a burial chamber. The construction of this souterrain is dated some 2000 years after the construction of the mound and the other chambers.  Only archaeologists get to enter, but most dads and teenage sons like to check out the cage and think about how they could get in “if they really wanted to.”

Continuing to walk around the mound clockwise and you’ll see several large kerbstones peaking out of the lush growth at the base. It appears that Dowth originally had both a ring of kerbstones and was covered in white quartz rocks like Newgrange — now mostly removed for local building projects. On the south side, you come upon a beautiful tree growing out of the slope of the mound. In summer, this looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and you half expect to come across a Hobbit hole just past the tree. Instead, you come across one of the most intriguing pieces of neolithic art in Europe, The Stone of the Seven Suns.

Click through to see The Stone of Seven the Suns up close…

Although most of Dowth’s kerbstones are overgrown or buried, Kerbstone #51, known as The Stone of the Seven Suns, has had the vegetation stripped away to reveal what appears to be celestial notations depicting the sun, the moon, and stars. Whether this is some sort of solar calendar, a record of eclipses and celestial movement, or some kind of teaching tool, we simply do not know. One of the seven “sun wheels” appears to show a lunar eclipse in some detail. Significantly, this kerbstone is carved on both sides, suggesting the key to its purpose could have lain more in the act of its creation than in a means of recording or transmitting information. Then again, perhaps the kerbstones where simply an abstract means to beautify the site and please the gods or spirits of the ancestors, or maybe the images on the back were simply a design that went wrong — the chisel slipped and the stone was turned to save the effort of quarrying another? An indentation in the mound has been cut behind the kerbstone to allow people to see these mysterious carvings in full. (There is speculation that this indentation may conceal the entrance to another chamber.) Encourage your children to try to guess at the meaning of the various symbols; their guesses will be as good as anyone else’s.

Across the field at this point, you will see the ruins of Dowth Church, destroyed during the 1641 uprising. A short walk across the fields brings you to the present day Netterville House and the ruins of the church.

The history of Dowth is a fascinating blend of the historically important and the farcically eccentric. The tomb sits on what was once part of the estate of the Nettervilles, an old Anglo-Norman family. When the Insurrection of 1641 began, the then lord, Viscount Nicholas Netterville, allegedly first offered his services to the Crown, but when he (as a Catholic) was not greeted with open arms, he threw his lot in with the rebels. He lost his estates for his trouble, and saw the Dowth church and castle reduced to ruins, but ironically had his possessions restored a decade later when Oliver Cromwell came to power and recent enemies of the crown were recast as heroes.

One century later, the sixth Viscount, John Netterville, built a gazebo on top of the Dowth mound from which he “attended” mass in the nearby church by telescope! In the 19th century, misguided amateur archeologists used dynamite to blow a hole in the mound searching for a fabled inner chamber they thought might contain the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s not recorded whether these would-be Indiana Joneses found anything they could recognize after their destructive excavation. The heavily damaged site was then used as a quarry for stone for many years, until the mound was overgrown and forgotten.

Oddly, while Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and restored, little appears to have been done to Dowth other than rebuilding the roof of the south chamber and securing the entrances to the chambers and souterrain. But the contrast between the decay and damage of the ages on one side, and the glorious (if controversial) restorations on the other gives an indication of the magnitude of both the achievements of the restorers and the artistic skill, engineering know-how and organization of the original builders.

As you wander around the overgrown acreage of Dowth, you can draw on the insight gained at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, inside Newgrange, and around Knowth, to fill in the blanks, to allow the mind’s eye to show you Dowth as it might once have appeared, and ponder what life at this bend of the river Boyne might have been like 5000 years ago.

Co. Meath tourism, Visiting Ireland, Ireland with children

Knowth (L) and Newgrange (R) seen from the Friary on top of the Hill of Slane. Could an overgrown mound behind the church be the grave of the man who legend says cleared the site for these famous tombs? (Click through for a better resolution view.)

You can wander around the church and friary/college on top of the Hill of Slane all morning without noticing the mound known as “the motte” because it’s in a wooded area behind the church. I know I (who grew up in Co. Meath) didn’t even know it was there until I read about it somewhere or other. There now seems to be a very interesting project to investigate this mound under way. Archaeologists have been scanning the motte and its surroundings (an earth resistance survey) to discover what it’s made of (a cairn of rocks brought from elsewhere, a built structure, or a mound of local clay?) and detect any subsoil evidence of the remains of buildings on top. The resultant 3D mapping gives a great view of the physical features of the hill and suggests future locations to explore.

Going by the annals, it seems likely that there was an ancient grave of some importance on the hill: reputed to be the Fir Bolg king Sláine, from whom the hill gets its name. (Yes, that’s the same Sláine on whose legends the classic 2000AD comic was inspired. I daresay a generation of British and Irish megalithomaniacs had their imaginations kick-started by that story.)  The type of grave this may have been (cairn, passage tomb, dolmen, etc.) we don’t know. Likewise, whether  that grave site was later exploited to build a Norman motte and bailey-type fortified position or whether the church was originally built on the tomb site is unknown. It seems the use of the motte as a fortified position dates from around 1170AD, but the mound now known as the motte could be much older.  Sláine was reputed to have cleared the site for Newgrange, which would place him circa 3200BC.  However, the preliminary earth resistance survey results from this project are intriguing, suggesting that the mound is man-made and revealing a second earthwork (possibly a ring barrow dating from 2500BC–although all dates seem approximate at this stage in the project) partially overbuilt by a rath surrounding the motte. Given the history of adaptive re-use of sites with strategic or symbolic significance by successive cultures in Ireland, there certainly seems to be a strong case for further investigation.

Fieldwork has been ongoing since 2010, so this is a project to bookmark and watch for future discoveries.

Links:

2010 Research « The Hill of Slane Archaeological Project.

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