Vast Temple Complex Found at Navan Fort in Northern Ireland
Archaeologists in Northern Ireland have uncovered a pagan temple at the important archaeological site at Navan. This was once the capital of Ulster and it has long been associated with Irish myths. The discovery is providing a new perspective on the role in Navan, one of Ireland’s royal capitals, in the distant past.
Navan Fort is an extensive archaeological site in County Armagh in Northern Ireland. There was a large hillfort here and it was the capital of Ulaidh, which covered much of the north of the island of Ireland, from pagan times into the Middle Ages. RTE reports that “Navan Fort is one of Ireland’s so-called royal sites, a group of five ceremonial centers of prehistoric origin.” Navan was supposedly founded by a Celtic goddess and was frequently mentioned in Irish mythology. It is located near the City of Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of both the Catholic and Anglican community in Ireland.
Archaeologists in Northern Ireland think they have uncovered a pagan temple complex at the important archaeological site at Navan. (Comparative Kingship Project / Queen’s University)
Could Underground Structures Be an Enormous Pagan Temple?
It had long been known that Navan was an important religious and ceremonial center before the Christianization of Ireland. Researchers from Queen's University Belfast and the University of Aberdeen were investigating the area around Navan using magnetic gradiometry, to detect any previously undiscovered underground structures. Dr. Paddy Gleeson, of Queen’s University, told the BBC that this “allows us to map the buried archaeology for which there is no above ground trace and to be very precise about the nature and interrelationships of those monuments."
The research team was able to measure the electrical resistance and magnetic properties detected in the soil to determine if there were any structures beneath the surface of a hilltop. This allowed them to map large subterranean features. The findings were a revelation allowing the investigators to identify several massive structures. Prof. Gleeson told the BBC that these could be “some of the largest structures built in the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD.”
Researchers believe that the unassuming hillfort site is hiding an enormous pagan temple complex. (Visit Armagh)
Possibly the largest Ancient religious complex of prehistoric Northern Europe
After a review of the data, the academics believe that they have found “a vast temple complex and ceremonial center,” reports the Irish Times. This is based on the size of the structures and their location in comparison to other monuments, that were probably used in ceremonies. The buildings discovered are situated not far from several figure-of-eight buildings and a barrow, which date from the first century AD, and were unearthed in the 1960s.
Irish mythology clams that Navan Fort was the capital of Ulaidh and was founded by the goddess Macha. In Old Irish, the hillfort is called Emain Macha, which has often been translated to mean “Macha’s twins”. (Public domain)
According to Gleeson, the identification of a complex of buildings found in the 1960s may indicate “a series of massive temples, some of the largest and most complex ritual arena of any region of later prehistoric and pre-Roman Northern Europe,” reports RTE. It appears that the complex was surrounded by a series of wooden palisade and this may indicate that it was rebuilt more than once on the hilltop. This find is transforming expert knowledge of Navan and shows that the history of the site reaches back further into the Iron Age than previously thought.
Navan Fort: Continued Activity Well Into the Middle Ages
Some of the buildings are believed to be contemporary with the foundation of Armagh by St. Patrick in the 5 th century AD. The saint did this to counter the influence of the druids, who probably controlled the temples and ceremonial sites at Navan. RTE states that “evidence for the continuity of activity at Navan Fort after the coming of Christianity and the foundation of Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, is particularly significant.”
Some of the structures that have been uncovered are possibly dated to the Middle Ages. Based on Gaelic literature, it appears that one of the houses was built by a powerful Irish ruler. One of the buildings uncovered is likely to be identifiable with a stately house built by Niall Óg Ó Néill, a king of Ulster. He came from the powerful O’Neill dynasty and he claimed to be king of all Ireland, according to Gaelic poetry. He is best known for expelling the English from the East of Ulster.
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While further research is needed, Dr. John O’Keeffe, Principal Inspector of Historic Monuments in Northern Ireland, told RTE that the discoveries “shone new light on the monument, and will inform further research as we explore what Navan Fort meant to our forebears and how they used the site.” The results will once again demonstrate that the location is one of the most important in Northern Europe. However, a significant amount of funding would be required to excavate the site and to showcase it to the public.
Top image: Further research is needed to fully understand and explore the significance of Navan Fort in Northern Ireland. Source: Giuseppe Milo / CC BY 2.0
By Ed Whelan