Navigating Navan Fort – the ancient ‘capital’ of Ulster

Navan Fort from the air (image from Ireland Before You Die)

Navan Fort – or Emain Macha in Old Irish – has been described as ‘one of Europe’s most iconic monumental complexes’. It’s not in Navan and it’s not a fort, so what do we know about the history of this ancient ceremonial site?

What’s in a name?

Navan Fort is located in County Armagh in Northern Ireland.

‘Navan’ is understood to be an anglicisation of the Irish An Eamhain. This is a shortened form of Eamhain Mhacha – the modern Irish name for Navan Fort, from the Old Irish Emain Macha.

There are two main theories as to where Emain Macha derived from. One is that is refers to ‘Macha’s brooch’, Macha being a goddess after whom the nearby town of Armagh is named.

Another interpretation is that it refers to ‘Macha’s twins’ or ‘Macha’s pair’ – possibly referring to features at the site or in the surrounding area.

Clearly Macha was a significant personage for Navan Fort and Armagh. One of three sisters (known collectively as the Morrígna), she was a sovereignty goddess – associated with the land, fertility, kingship, war and horses.

‘Macha Curses the Men of Ulster’ – 1904

Navan Fort is believed to be unrelated to the town of Navan in the Republic of Ireland, some distance due south. Interestingly, the name of the town of Navan is thought to come from the Irish An Uaimh, meaning ‘the cave’ or ‘the souterrain’ (Iron Age underground structure).

As we shall see, Navan Fort also has its fair share of underground archaeology.

What’s there?

At Navan Fort there is a large circular enclosure with two circular monuments within it.

The enclosure is located on a low hill – understood to be a glacially deposited ‘drumlin’. The enclosure, which is some 250 metres (820ft) in diameter, looks amazing in aerial shots, although these tend to disguise the nature of the local topography. As described on the interpretation boards…

“[The enclosure] is not centred symmetrically. At one point on the north side, the ditch and bank run across the top of the hill, while here on the south side, the ditch and external bank descend almost to the base of the hill. The earthwork is best preserved on the south-west, where it rises towards the hilltop but has been almost completely levelled to the east”

Within the enclosure are the two circular monuments…

“They were both investigated during excavations in the 1960s.  The first, designated ‘Site A’ during the excavations, is a ploughed-down ring barrow, a later prehistoric ceremonial of funerary monument. The second, called ‘Site B’ is a larger artificial mound, 50 metres in diameter”

Plan of Navan Fort showing the mounds A and B (north is downwards)
What was it for?

The name of Navan Fort (or sometimes Navan Rath) implies a defensive structure, but this does not appear to have been the case. Again, to quote from the interpretation boards on site: “Although referred to locally as a fort, the site is actually a prehistoric sanctuary”.

Part of the reasoning for this is that the large circular enclosure is made up of a bank and ditch, and the ditch is on the inside, suggesting that it was not intended for defensive purposes (usually ditches at hillforts would be on the outside to give the defenders a height advantage over the attackers).

In his book Pagan Britain, author Ronald Hutton suggests that the placing of the ditch inside the bank may have been an attempt to imitate (earlier) Neolithic henges.

More from the interpretation boards:

“It is possible that the earthwork was actually built to contain the sacred forces which would be worshipped here on special occasions, such as festivals, inaugurations and other ritual ceremonies. It may also have been a rallying point for the mustering of armies. The construction of the earthwork clearly required the effort of many people, so the completed monument was a lasting memorial to the community which built it and their beliefs”

Navan Fort from the south (Comparative Kingship Project / Queen’s University)
What about ancient myths and traditions?

Based on myth and tradition, Navan Fort (as Emain Macha) was one of the great ‘royal sites’ of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. It was the capital of the Ulaidh, after which Ulster is named.

According to the boards on site:

“In the Ulster cycle of mythological tales, Navan Fort was the headquarters and sacred place of King Conchobar and his warriors, who fiercely defended the borders of their territory against invasion. According the ancient tradition, the kingdom of Ulster was eventually defeated and its capital here at Emain Macha abandoned, not long before the arrival of Christianity”

Moreover, archaeologist Richard Warner has stated: “Navan was a major centre of worship of a god known to the Classical world as Apollo, and that Cúchulainn was his embodiment in the Ulster Cycle tales”.

For his part, Chris Lynn – author of a book on Navan Fort – likens Emain Macha to “an Ulster Troy or Camelot”.

Ireland’s royal sites

The descriptions of Emain Macha in Irish myth and legend tend to make it out as “far grander and mysterious” than current archaeological evidence supports (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology).

Whilst this may be the case, it is apparent that Navan Fort as Emain Macha is not alone – it is part of a sophisticated network of other ‘royal sites’ or provincial centres across Ireland:

Ireland’s ‘royal’ sites – from The Ancient Tracks by Graham Robb

As can be seen in the map above, the Hill of Uisneach formed the central site (or omphalos).

According to Graham Robb, this central site was established by the Fir Bolg, an ancient people who settled in Ireland after traveling through southern Europe. The Book of Invasions describes the subsequent partition of Ireland as a tóraind (a ‘marking-out’ or ‘delimiting’).

The Navan complex

Returning to Navan Fort, there are other archaeological monuments in the local area which are collectively referred to as the ‘Navan complex’. This includes:

Haughey’s Fort – an oval enclosure some 350 metres (1150 feet) across at its widest point, surrounded by two concentric ditches – the site appears to pre-date Navan Fort and of particular interest a skull of the largest prehistoric dog discovered in the British Isles was found there.

The King’s Stables – a circular water body, partly surrounded by an earthen bank – it is presumed to be an artificial ritual pool rather than a natural water body – a myth associated with the pool is that the king brought his horses to water there.

Loughnashade – a natural lake that has yielded votive offerings (objects deposited at sacred places without the intention of recovery or use).

Link to Air Archaeology drone footage (Navan Fort) and interactive map (Navan Complex)
So what happened when?

c. 4000 – 2500 BC – flint tools and shards of pottery show evidence of Neolithic activity.

1100 – 900 BC – estimated occupation dates for Haughey’s Fort in the early Bronze Age.

1000 BC – estimated date for the King’s Stables pool.

8th century BC – a ring of timber poles was raised where the high mound (B) now stands.

668 BC – “In Irish mythology, the great mound called Emain Macha (Navan Fort) was said to have been founded by a certain Queen Macha (identified with a goddess of that name) in 668 BC. This was considered impossibly early until archaeologists dated the oldest features of Emain Macha to c. 680 BC” – quote from The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.

4th century BC – a wooden round building was constructed and rebuilt many times on the high mound at Navan Fort; and finds (including the skull of a barbary monkey) suggest a high standing person such as king or chief druid occupied the site.

300 BC (onwards to 331 AD) – Navan Fort appears to have been at the height of its importance.

1st or 2nd century BC – round wooden structures were built at the eastern site (Mound A), and replaced other wooden structures, and then replaced by ring barrow.

1st century BC – on the high mound a huge timber roundhouse-like structure was built (see image below), with a ditch and bank around it – not long after it was built, it was filled with thousands of stones and then deliberately burnt down before being covered in a mound of earth. There is archaeological evidence for similar repeated building and burning at Tara and Dún Ailinne. This may have been linked to the ancient reverence of an Otherworld, with the structure’s central pillar representing the world pillar or world tree, and the burning being a sacrificial offering.

2nd century AD – the Navan Fort site appears on the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy’s map of the then known world.

331 AD – according to Irish medieval chronicles, Emain Macha was abandoned after it was burnt by the Three Collas (three brothers who defeated Fergus Foga, king of Ulster).

Reconstruction of the huge roundhouse or ‘temple’ from 1st century BC (image by notafly)
Recommended books

Navan Fort: Archaeology and Myth by Chris Lynn amazon.co.uk | amazon.com

The Ancient Tracks by Graham Robb amazon.co.uk | amazon.com

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