People Trekked Across Ireland to Eat Pork at This Ancient Site

A new study suggests travelers brought pigs from far-flung locations to the ceremonial feasting hub of Navan Fort

pig jaw
One of the pig jaws analyzed for the study Richard Madgwick

In Northern Ireland, not far from the city of Armagh, sits the archaeological site of Navan Fort, a prehistoric hub linked to historic kings and legendary heroes. Substantial livestock remains found at the fort testify to its importance as a ceremonial feasting center. And now, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports reveals that the pigs slaughtered at Navan originated across Ireland, indicating that the country’s ancient inhabitants traveled from afar to revel at the site.

Navan Fort, known as Emain Macha in early Irish literature, was the capital of the ancient province of Ulster. In myth, the site is associated with Cú Chulainn, the greatest of the legendary Red Branch warriors. In reality, it held long-standing importance for the ancients: Artifacts discovered at Navan suggest the site was occupied as far back as the Neolithic period. Excavations have uncovered a series of round buildings dating to the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. One sprawling circular structure spans more than 130 feet and dates to the first century B.C.

“For this period, it would be an absolutely mammoth building,” Richard Madgwick, an osteoarchaeologist at Cardiff University and a lead author of the new paper, tells Isaac Schultz of Atlas Obscura. “One of the largest that’s known.”

The site has yielded few human remains—just one clavicle has been found there, per the paper—but plenty of animal bones. Among them, curiously, was the skull of a barbary macaque, a primate which had to have come from “at least as far as southern Iberia,” according to the study authors. Researchers don’t know whether the monkey was sacrificed or simply marveled at, but its presence hints that exotic animals were commonly transported to the culturally important meeting hub.

Even the more humdrum livestock sacrificed at the site point to Navan Fort’s significance. The remains of more than 100 pigs have been discovered there, and in the absence of human bones, these porcine remains can tell us more about the people who gathered at Navan for ceremonial smorgasbords.

To unlock the geographic history of the feasting center’s ill-fated pigs (and the humans who brought them there), the researchers conducted isotope analyses of tooth enamel from 35 animals.

“Food and water have chemical compositions linked to the geographical areas where they are sourced,” says a Cardiff University statement. “When animals eat and drink, these chemical signals are archived in their teeth, allowing scientists to investigate the location where they were raised.”

One element the researchers examined was the strontium isotope, which was “exceptionally diverse” among the animals found at Navan Fort, according to the study. Ireland’s strontium biosphere has only been partially mapped, but the results of the study nevertheless pointed to values that “represent one of the largest ranges for any faunal dataset in the British Isles.”

The data did not show clear geographic clusters, suggesting the pigs weren’t being sourced from large supply centers. Instead, the animals were brought to Navan Fort in small numbers from multiple locations across Ireland, possibly as far away as Galway, Donegal, Down, Tyrone and Antrim.

Madgwick, the study’s lead author, previously helmed a study that found pig bones at Stonehenge originated across the British Isles—also a sign that people were making long treks to feast at the prehistoric monument.

“[But] Stonehenge’s pigs were raised in an era where pigs were everywhere,” Madgwick tells Schultz. “That’s not the case for the Iron Age. Pigs are a very peripheral species at the time.”

Still, the people of ancient Ireland loved their pork, which is touted as the preferred dish of feasts in Irish literature. To participate in the grand meals at Navan Fort, revelers “had to bring a pig,” according to Madgwick. Doing so was a way of paying tribute to the leaders of Ulster. The huge circular building at the site may very well have been a prehistoric feasting hall.

“Transporting animals across the country would have involved a great deal of time and effort so our findings demonstrate the important role they played in society,” says Madgwick. “Food was clearly a central part of people's exchanges and traditions.”

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