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Evidence of Enormous Temples Found at Northern Ireland’s Navan Fort

Non-invasive survey reveals traces of Iron Age religious structures, early medieval royal residences

The main circular earthwork at Navan Fort in Northern Ireland measures roughly 130 feet in diameter. But archaeologists surveying the site have found signs of even larger structures that may have been temples. (Queen's University)
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According to popular lore, Navan Fort—a circular earthwork near the city of Armagh in Northern Ireland—was once the seat of the much-mythologized kings of Ulster. Now, reports Irish radio station RTÉ, archaeologists have discovered evidence of extensive activity at the site, including a vast Iron Age temple complex and residences perhaps occupied by these legendary monarchs during the early medieval era.

The findings, published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, are “quite significant,” study co-author Patrick Gleeson, an archaeologist at Queen’s University Belfast, tells RTÉ. He describes Navan Fort as an “incredibly important place,” emphasizing both its archaeological value and centrality in famous Irish myths including Táin Bó Cuailainge and the story of Cú Chulainn.

Previously, researchers had thought that Ireland’s ancient inhabitants abandoned the site around 95 B.C. But the newly identified structures extend the fort’s history through the first or second millennium A.D., ensuring it “is no longer relegated to pre-history,” says Gleeson.

“Excavation in the 1960s uncovered one of the most spectacular series of buildings of any region of prehistoric Europe, including a series of figure-of-8 buildings of the Early Iron Age and a [131-foot] timber-ringed structure constructed circa 95 B.C.,” explains Gleeson in a statement. “Upon the latter’s construction, it was immediately filled with stones and burnt to the ground in order to create a massive mound that now dominates the site.”

The team’s recent analysis suggests these structures, tentatively identified as royal residences upon their discovery in the 1960s, are actually 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,” according to the statement.

Gleeson and his colleagues studied the proposed temples with remote-sensing technology and a geophysical survey. As the archaeologist tells Gerry Moriarty of the Irish Times, these non-invasive techniques detect fluctuations in soil’s magnetic properties and electrical conductivity, allowing researchers to probe beneath the surface for traces of ancient structures that would be impossible to spot with the naked eye.

“It would give you a very good indication of the footprint of these buildings and the scale of the structure,” says Gleeson to BBC News’ Cormac Campbell. “I suppose that’s one of the reasons why this feels so significant, because these are truly monumental structures, they are absolutely huge by the standards of the age.”

The structures could be among the largest built between the first millennium B.C. and the first millennium A.D., Gleeson adds. One enclosure stretched across the entire hilltop; measuring more than 450 feet across, it contained two figure-eight-shaped buildings that likely dated to the Iron Age.

For now, the buried structures will likely remain hidden underground. As BBC News points out, conducting physical excavations at the site would require significant funding.

In the statement, John O’Keeffe, principal inspector of historic monuments in Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities, adds, “The work has 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, for years to come. It provides additional insights that inform visits to this enigmatic monument and landscape today.”

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