Fulachtai Fia: Legends of the Mysterious Bronze Age Pits of Ireland
A fulacht fiadh (spelled also as fulacht fian) (the plural form being fulachtai fia) is a type of archaeological feature found in Ireland. Such features have also been found in other parts of the British Isles, and are known as burnt mounds. In Ireland alone, it is claimed that there are nearly 6000 of such sites that have been recorded. The word fulacht fiadh can be found in early Irish literature from at least the 9 th century AD, and that its origins are rooted in Irish legend.
According to Irish folklore, the fulachtai fia were the cooking places of the Fianna, the followers of Fionn Mac Cumhaill (known also as Finn MacCool). The Fianna are said to be the warrior protectors of Ireland, and consisted of 50 chiefs who each commanded 27 men. This band of warriors travelled around Ireland, and the fulachtai fia are thought to have been made by them so that they could cook the meats that they feasted on. Another (later) tradition suggests that the fulachtai fia were used to heat water for the warriors’ baths.
Finn Mccool Comes to Aid the Fianna (Public Domain)
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A fulacht fiadh may be identified by its rectangular-shaped water trough. This trough is usually lined either with slabs of stone or wood, and hearths can often be found nearby. Additionally, a pile of stones in a horse-shoe shape that have been burnt and cracked by heat are normally to be found near the trough. It has also been pointed out that the fulachtai fia are commonly located near a source of water. According to the archaeological dating of the fulachtai fia, the majority of these features were constructed during the Bronze Age, though there are also examples from as late as the early medieval period.
Small community kitchen
Despite the number of recorded fulachtai fia, the feature’s exact function(s) is still unclear. There has been much speculation as to the function of the fulachtai fia. The most common explanation is that the fulachtai fia were cooking sites, as suggested by Irish folklore. Rather than the roaming band of the Fianna of Irish legend, however, the fulachtai fia are more likely to be associated with permanent settlements. The people of such settlements, it was fairly more economical for communities to cook large amounts of meat together. Thus, the fulachtai fia served as an area where the community came together to cook their meals. Whilst modern experiments have shown that this is possible, the lack of animal remains mean that one is unable to state conclusively that the fulachtai fia were used for cooking.
"Fulacht Fiadh" cooking pit, Irish National Heritage Park (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Another suggestion is that the fulachtai fia were used as bathhouses, similar to the baths used by the ancient Romans or Turks, i.e. as saunas or sweathouses. Apart from recreational bathing, the fulachtai fia may have been used for ritual bathing as well. Again, this suggestion may have been inspired by the legend of the Fianna, and early Irish literature is said to further support this theory. The main problem with this theory, however, is the fact that most fulachtai fia lack any form of covering over them. For a fulacth fiadh to function effectively as a sauna or sweathouse, it would have required a covering to keep the hot steam in, and provide protection against the elements.
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There are also other theories regarding the purpose of the fulachtai fia that are not based in Irish legend. One, of instance, is that they were places where cloth was prepared, washed, and / or dyed. Another suggestion is that the fulachtai fia were used to brew beer. Based on experiments that have been conducted, this theory seems plausible. Despite the positive results from the experiments, this theory, like the other theories, faces a lack of supporting archaeological evidence. In the case of the brewing theory, it is the lack of pottery evidence that poses an obstacle at present. For the time being, as there is a lack of further archaeological evidence, we may only be able to know the ‘potential uses’ and not the ‘actual use(s)’ of the fulachtai fia.
Featured image: A fulacht fiadh. Photo source: (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Colm, 2012. The enigmatic fulacht fiadh or burnt mound. [Online]
Available at: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2012/07/the-enigmatic-fulacht-fiadhburnt-mound/
Moore Group, 2007. Ale, brewing and fulacht fiadh: Archaeology Ireland. [Online]
Available at: https://mooregroup.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/the-archaeology-ireland-article/
Mullally, E., 2012. Letter from Ireland: Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/1201/letter/fulacht_fiadh_ale_bronze_age_ireland.html
Nurnberger, A.-M., 2016. Fulachta Fiadh – An Irish Mystery. [Online]
Available at: http://www.angelfire.com/fl/burntmounds/
Shiels, B., 2003. Fulachta Fiadh - Ancient Cooking Places. [Online]
Available at: http://kilbrittain.net/fulachta.htm