The Mound of the Hostages, Tara
Duma na nGiall: The Mound of the Hostages, Tara
by Muiris O'Sullivan.
Report on the archaeological excavations carried out at the Mound of the Hostages on the
Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland.
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This is a report on the archaeological excavations at the Mound of the Hostages
on the Hill of Tara
, County Meath, Ireland. The excavations were directed
initially by Seán P. Ó Ríordáin, who spent two summers at the site (1955 and
1956), and were completed in a third season during the summer of 1959 by
Ruaidhri de Valera, O Riordain's successor as Professor of Archaeology in
University College Dublin.
Extract from the Introduction
The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall) is situated near the summit of the
Hill of Tara, Country Meath
Its name derives from medieval topographical lore
linking it with the deeds of the legendary proto-historical royal personage
Cormac Mac Airt, but archaeological excavations in the 1950s revealed it to be a
megalithic tomb. The tomb itself and three distinctive pre-cairn cists built
against the outside of the tomb walls contained the bones of several hundred
individuals who lived in the Neolithic period. Further deposits of human bone
from the same period were placed in the ground around the cairn. Another intense
phase of burial occurred in the early Bronze Age, both within the tomb and in
the overlying mound. Accompanying these Neolithic and early Bronze Age bones was
a rich assemblage of artefacts, including some spectacular objects. Traces of
pre-passage tomb activity as well as late Bronze Age, Iron Age and post-medieval
features in the vicinity of the mound emphasise the enduring significance of the place.
In spite of the delay since the excavations the site has yielded a comprehensive
array of radiocarbon determinations, processed in 2001. The individual results
are cited throughout the report in conjunction with the features to which they
refer. In addition, the chronology of the site is discussed in detail in the
'Synthesis and conclusions' chapter based on a combination of stratigraphical
analysis, radiocarbon determinations and diagnostic archaeological features.
Although some results from the investigations have found their way into the
archaeological literature over the years, there has been no comprehensive report
on the excavations until now. In any case, some of what has been written about
the archaeology of the site, especially at second hand, is misleading,
incomplete and occasionally inaccurate. The information presented here may help
to set the record straight and, more importantly, provide researchers with a
reasonably comprehensive record of the excavation, a catalogue of the material
recovered and a basic interpretation of the findings.
The Hill of Tara
, although rising to no more than 155m above sea-level, commands
a panoramic view over the surrounding countryside, especially to the west, where
the central plain of Ireland stretches to the mountains on the distant horizon.
Although not visible from Tara, the Boyne River, on its northerly course towards
Navan, flows through the low ground a few kilometres to the west. The
most obvious landmark on the east side is the Hill of Skryne, some 3km away, to
the northeast the Hill of Slane is visible in the distance.
The geology, soils and drainage of the area have been summarised by Fenwick
(1997). Lower Carboniferous limestone is the principal underlying rock, but
sandstones and mudstones can also be found locally. The topography of rounded
hills, of which Tara itself is an example, reflects glacial activity during the
Pleistocene, and there are deposits of glacial debris in the valleys. Grey-brown
podzolics forming productive farmland are the dominant soil types in the
neighbourhood. The Hill of Tara itself is a limestone ridge about 2km in length.
It is drained to the west and north-west by the Skane River system, part of the
catchment of the River Boyne. About 9km northwest of Tara the Boyne is augmented
by the Blackwater at the town of Navan and veers east towards Slane and the
great Boyne Valley complex beyond, before entering the sea near Drogheda. This
river system acts as a geographical thread linking Tara with the Boyne Valley
passage tombs on the one hand and the
complex on the other. Although
applicable to the late prehistoric era at the earliest, it is nevertheless
interesting that early written mythology invests the Boyne in particular with
rich symbolic significance, and it is possible that the roots of this sacredness
may lead all the way back to the Stone Age.
Tara has long been associated with the Irish Iron Age, being one of the great
royal sites of the proto-historical era. The excavations of the 1950s, however,
demonstrated that not all of the monuments could be presumed automatically to
belong to the late prehistoric period. In recent decades there has generally
been a greater appreciation of the time-depth represented at Tara, reinforced by
the discovery of Neolithic and late Bronze Age elements at comparable complexes
such as Dun Ailinne and Emain Macha. The suggestion that the so-called
Banqueting Hall (Tech Midchuarta) of the medieval imagination may be a cursus
monument of the Neolithic period is particularly interesting here because this
earthwork appears to be aligned towards the Mound of the Hostages, the
intervening Rath of the Synods
(Ráith na Senad) being a later addition.
Since the early 1990s the Hill of Tara has been the focus of a concerted
research scheme under the auspices of the Discovery Programme. A detailed survey
of the complex has been published (Newman 1997) and further geophysical survey
has occurred in the meantime (Fenwick and Newman 2002). This programme, further
illuminated by Bhreathnach's historical research (1995), has provided the most
comprehensive account to date of the archaeological remains at Tara. Apart from
clarifying aspects of the previously known earthworks, the geophysical surveys
have revealed evidence of intriguing and previously unknown subsurface features,
most notably a second great oval enclosure intersecting Ráith na Ríg and
apparently centred somewhere within Ráith na Senad. The Mound of the Hostages is
the only upstanding monument enclosed within both great oval enclosures. In the
course of the current volume the geophysical findings will be discussed in the
context of the features revealed in the excavations. A recent re-excavation of
the ditch of Ráith na Ríg close to the Mound of the Hostages will also be
Mound of the Hostages after removal of the earthen mound in 1959
Review by Chris Scarre - Durham University
We have repeatedly been exhorted in recent years to view Neolithic
monuments not as static artefacts but more as works in progress, subject to
successive remodelling and renegotiations of meaning and significance. Such
monuments were also, from their first foundation, powerful sites of memory.
There can be no better illustration of these two precepts than the
Mound of the Hostages
has long been well-known as the famous royal centre of the proto-historic
period. The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall) owes its name to 19th century
scholars who sought to identify visible monuments with places mentioned in 11th
century manuscripts, associated with shadowy historical characters and events.
In fact, as the excavations reported here revealed, the Mound of the Hostages
proved to be several millennia older than this, and is indeed the earliest of
the major monuments on the Hill of Tara. The character and age of the monument
were, however, entirely unknown until Seán P. Ó Ríordáin, Professor of Celtic
Archaeology at University College Dublin, began excavations in 1955 and
identified it as a passage tomb.
The Mound of the Hostages has featured prominently in subsequent discussions of
Irish chambered tombs, not least for the abundance of the human remains
recovered from the chamber, and the complexity of Neolithic cremations and
inhumations within and around the mound. Yet despite a number of preliminary
reports, the full account has had to wait for almost half a century. The
circumstances of the excavation itself were tinged with sadness. Ó Ríordáin had
planned three seasons, and began work in 1955 but fell ill and died before the
third season could be completed. The baton was passed to his successor at
Dublin, Ruaidhrí De Valera, who directed the projected third season in 1959.
Thirty years later, Muiris O'Sullivan assumed the major task of seeing the final
report through to publication. The result is a volume which reads partly as a
window back into the 1950s, partly as testimony to the perseverance of
O'Sullivan and his team in working through site notebooks, boxes of finds and
specialist reports to produce a coherent account. Above all, however, in the
author's own words, 'it is a tribute to the careful excavation techniques and
record-keeping of the field-workers that so much information can still be
retrieved from their findings.'
The core of the volume consists of three chapters that take us through the key
components of the site: features beneath and around the mound; the megalithic
tomb and its associated cists; and the covering cairn and mound.
A hint of Mesolithic presence is furnished by a single Mesolithic flake, and
there is slight evidence of early Neolithic activity in the form of radiocarbon
dates on charcoal beneath the mounds (plus some sherds of possibly early 4th
millennium pottery) but activity begins in earnest during the second half of the
millennium with the construction of the passage tomb. This was covered by a
stone cairn which in turn was capped by a clay mound. Unlike other Irish passage
tombs, neither cairn nor mound were edged by an orthostatic kerb, but the
monument was encircled by a series of cremation deposits lying outside the edge
of the cairn, many of them within small settings of schist slabs. The chamber
itself conformed to the tripartite plan characteristic of many Irish tombs but
was remarkable in two particular respects: in the numbers of individuals
represented (a total of around 200, both cremations and inhumations); and in the
presence, against the rear of the orthostats, of stone-built cists containing a
further 63 or more individuals.
The excavation and interpretation of these chamber deposits was considerably
complicated by the presence of Early Bronze Age burials accompanied by Food
Vessels: for example, two successive crouched inhumations had been made in a pit
dug into the Neolithic cremation deposit in the inner compartment of the tomb. A
further series of Early Bronze Age burials had been inserted into the clay mound
overlying the stone cairn. A small difference between the dates for Bronze Age
burials in the chamber (four dates 2281-1943 BC) and in the mound (fourteen
dates 2131-1533 BC) lead the authors to suggest that the burials in the mound
may have begun only when the chamber itself was considered to be full. (One
small note of criticism here is that the calibrated dates are quoted with
1-sigma intervals, although the 2-sigma intervals are provided in appendix 7).
Also from this period are some 30 fire pits around the base of the cairn, which
may have been 'a sanctifying ritual associated with the expansion of burial
activity from the tomb interior to the mound.'
Two features of this sequence are especially interesting. The first is the
complexity and chronology of the Neolithic funerary activity in and around the
chambered mound. The three cists at the back of the orthostats are built within
the bedding trench that had been cut into the bedrock to receive the orthostats.
They were sealed once the covering cairn was built. At the same time, dates from
the cists, from a sample of bone in the orthostat bedding trench, and from
Neolithic material within the chamber itself were contemporary. This appears to
indicate what has often been suggested but can rarely be demonstrated, that the
tomb chamber initially functioned as free-standing funerary structure before the
cairn was built around and above it.
The second feature of special interest is the rhythm of activity on the site.
The authors suggest that the Hill of Tara 'may already have been a place to
visit before the Neolithic' but what is particularly notable is the apparent
lull in activity between the last Neolithic deposits in the tomb chamber (c.
2900 BC) and the renewal of interest in the Early Bronze Age, some six or seven
centuries later, when a dozen or so burials were inserted in the chamber and a
further twenty or more in the covering mound. What happened during these
centuries? Did Tara lose some of its importance for a while, or did activity
switch to another area on the hill?
Another interesting suggestion is the possibility that the clay mound might have
been added during the Early Bronze Age specifically to allow the insertion of
additional burials. The original excavators rejected the idea because there was
no evidence of slippage around the edge of the stone cairn, such as might be
expected had it been left exposed for several centuries before the clay capping
was added. Yet the case is not conclusive and the possibility remains open that
the Mound of the Hostages was significantly altered during the Early Bronze Age
by the addition of an outer envelope. It is certainly clear that the ring of
Early Bronze Age fire pits encircles the foot of the clay mound fairly tightly.
As these comments make clear, the detail included in this volume allows the
unusual nature of the passage tomb and the complex sequence of constructional
and depositional events to be studied in some depth. Certain previously
published conclusions, such as the total number of Bronze Age burials in the
mound, are revised. The confused stratigraphy, especially within the chamber,
has been greatly clarified by 58 radiocarbon dates (both conventional and AMS)
run at the Groningen laboratory. In sum, this volume enables the Mound of the
Hostages to take its rightful place as one of the key sites for the
understanding of Irish passage tombs, and to shake off the cloud under which it
has languished for the past 50 years.
is also a pleasure to use. Coloured diagrams allow the complex
phasing of the site to be followed with exemplary clarity, and key finds, too,
are illustrated in a series of colour plates. It is all the more regrettable,
given this generally high standard of production, that the key cross-sections
(pp.12-13) and overall site plan (pp. 24-25) are so tightly bound into the
gutter that they are largely unusable. Against this, however, must be balanced
the wealth of photos from the original excavations that are reproduced here, and
make this not only a key excavation report but also a fascinating historical
- Durham University October 2006
Drawing of decorated stone, orthostat L2, Mound of the Hostages by Ursula
Mattenberger from the book Duma na nGiall (The Mound of the Hostages), Tara.
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