Just 2 miles (3.4km) west of Armagh city, Navan Fort is a large circular earthworks structure that is believed to have been an important site for Ireland's high kings as far back as 2,500 years ago. Surrounding a drumlin with an internal diameter of around 240 metres, Navan Fort resembles the better-known ancient mound at Newgrange. Despite its name, the site has no connection with the town of Navan in County Meath. The name Navan in this case derives from the site's original Gaelic name, Emain Macha (Ay-vawn Mack-a), thought to mean "the twins of Macha" (in Irish mythology, Macha was a goddess of war). Also deceptive is the word "fort”: the mound structure's low layout, and finds at the site, suggests it was more ceremonial than defensive.
Navan Fort Visitors Centre
Today, visitors can explore the Navan Fort interpretive centre at the site, which features:
- "Living history" interpreters
- Multi-lingual interactive exhibitions
- Children's activities, such as dress-up and crafts
- Starbucks cafe
Discovery of Navan Fort and Archeological Finds
In the late 1960s, archaeologists first excavated the large mound at the centre of the structure. They discovered that the site had been rebuilt several times, commencing with a ditched enclosure, 150 meters in diameter, constructed in the Late Bronze Age. Subsequent archaeological finds from the Iron AGe -- including fragments of pottery, glass beads, armlets, and bronze artefacts -- suggest that the dwellings here belonged to wealthy individuals.
Barbary Ape Skull
More recently, the skull of a Barbary ape was found at the site. The skull was dated to around 350BCE. The find was remarkable, as there were no apes in Ireland at that time. It is believed that the animal may have originated in North Africa. Similar finds in other European Iron Age sites, including Britain and Luxembourg, suggest a trade in Barbary apes, which may have been the pets of the wealthy.
History and Purpose of Navan Fort
In the Early Iron Age, the first inhabitants of this site constructed a series of round houses, in the shape of a figure of eight. Around 90 BCE, the dwellings were replaced by a huge wooden structure, consisting of 275 large upright posts in five concentric rings, perhaps with a roof, and with a very tall pole in the centre. Historians believe the new, circular structure was not a dwelling, as soon after construction it was filled with large limestone boulders and set on fire in what was presumably an enormous burial ritual. After the bonfire, the charred remains were covered by sods of earth to form the mound.
Importance of Emain Macha Site
In pre-Christain times, the island of Ireland was consisted of many overlapping Gaelic kingdoms. According to ancient Irish mythology, the goddess Macha ordered a city to be erected at what is now Navan Fort, which was to be the chief location of the Ulster clans. Emain Macha was from then on the seat of the rulers of Ulster:
- King Conchobar mac Nessa, a semi-mythical figure who was the High King of Ulster in pre-Christian times, was based at Emain Macha, along with his Red Branch Knights
- Another great Irish mythical hero, Cu Chulainn spent much of his youth here, before (according to Irish mythology) going out single-handedly to face the army of Queen Medbh from Connacht
- In 1005, Brian Boru -- the first High King of all Ireland in medieval times -- encamped in Emain Macha
- In 1387, King Niall Mor O’Neill built a house at Emain Macha, to which he gathered all "the learned companies of Ireland”, in a bid to assert himself as the High King of all Ulster
Navan Fort mound. Image: Guiseppe Milo
Entrance to Navan Fort. Image: Henry Clark