The Hill of Tara, known as Temair in gaeilge, was once the ancient seat of power in Ireland – 142 kings are said to have reigned there in prehistoric and historic times. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Temair was the sacred place of dwelling for the gods, and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site.
One interpretation of the name Tara says that it means a "place of great prospect" and indeed on a clear day it is claimed that features in half the counties of Ireland can be seen from atop Tara. In the distance to the northeast can be seen the brilliant white quartz front of Newgrange and to the north lies the Hill of Slane, where according to legend St. Patrick lit his Paschal fire prior to his visit to Tara in 433 AD.
Early in the 20th century a group of Israelites came to Tara with the conviction that the Arc of the Covenant was buried in on the famous hill. They dug the Mound of the Synods in search of the Arc but found only some Roman coins. Official excavation in the 1950s revealed circles of post holes, indicating the construction of substantial buildings here. A new theory suggests Tara was the ancient capital of the lost kingdom of Atlantis. The mythical land of Atlantis was Ireland, according to a new book.
There are a large number of monuments and earthen structures on the Hill of Tara. The earliest settlement at the site was in the Neolithic, and the Mound of the Hostages was constructed in or around 2500BC. There are over thirty monuments which are visible, and probably as many again which have no visible remains on the surface but which have been detected using special non-intrusive archaeological techniques and aerial photography. A huge temple measuring 170 metres and made of over 300 wooden posts, was discovered recently at Tara. Only two monuments at Tara have been excavated - The Mound of the Hostages in the 1950s, and the Rath of the Synods at the turn of the 19th-20th Centuries. Click here to see a comprehensive map of the monuments on Tara. Click here for the Tara photo gallery.
Sitting on top of the King's Seat (Forradh) of Temair is the most famous of Tara's monuments - Ireland's ancient coronation stone - the Lia Fail or "Stone of Destiny", which was brought here according to mythology by the godlike people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, as one of their sacred objects. It was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara.
Formerly located just north of the Mound of the Hostages (see map), it was moved to its current site after the Battle of Tara during the Irish revolution of 1798 to mark the graves of 400 rebels who died here. Some say the true Stone of Destiny was formerly the Pillow of Jacob from the Old Testament. They also claim it was flat and that it was moved from Tara by King Fergus of Scotland and was named the Stone of Scone which then became the coronation stone of British kings at Westminster Cathedral. Many historians accept that the present granite pillar at Tara is the true Stone of Destiny, but a number of people have argued that the Stone of Scone is in fact the real thing. One legend states that it was only one of four stones positioned at the cardinal directions on Tara - and it is interesting to note that the Hall of Tara, the ancient political centre of Ireland, is aligned north-south.
The following verse is from the Dindshenchas story about how Tara got its name:
Cathair Crofhind ('twas not amiss), was its name under the Tuatha De Danand, till there came Tea, never unjust, the wife of Erimon lofty of mien. Round her house was built a rampart, by Tea daughter of Lugaid; she was buried beyond the wall without, so that from her is Temair named. The Seat of the Kings was its name: the kingly line of the Milesians reigned in it: five names accordingly were given it from the time when it was Fordruim till it was Temair.
The "Mound of the Hostages" is a megalithic 'passage tomb' and is the oldest monument on the hill of Tara, dating to about 2,500BC. The name "Mound of the Hostages" derives from the custom of overkings like those at Tara retaining important personages from subject kingdoms to ensure their submission.
One of the legendary kings of Tara was named Niall of the Nine Hostages in recognition of the fact that he held hostages from all the provinces of Ireland and from Britain.
The passage at the Mound of the Hostages is short, and is aligned on the cross-quarter days of November 8 and February 4, the ancient Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. Just inside the entrance on the left is a large decorated orthostat.
The passage of the Mound of the HostagesThis picture shows the short passage at the Mound of the Hostages at Tara. As a solar construct it is not as accurate as other passages, which are notably longer, but according to Brennan (The Stones of Time, 1994) the daily changes in the position of a 13-foot long sunbeam are more than adequate to determine specific dates. The passage would, without any doubt, also capture the light of the Full Moon at certain times in the 19-year cycle, specifically the minor standstill rising position.
In the churchyard at Tara there are two standing stones, which are believed to be ancient – remnants of a time when there were many stone monuments on Tara. The taller of the two stones is thought to feature a figure of the Celtic fertility god Cernunnos, and is similar to many of the 'Sheela na Gig' representations found across Ireland. These stones may date to the Neolithic period, although are more likely to have their origin in the Bronze Age.
In the early histories it was noted that on this section of the hill there once stood a monument called "The Cross of Adamnan" commemorating a seventh century saint who called a church synod at Tara to enact laws that gave greater rights to women.
A HUGE temple, once surrounded by about 300 huge posts made from an entire oak forest, has been discovered directly beneath the Hill of Tara in Co Meath. Conor Newman, an archaeology lecturer at NUI Galway, said the discovery at the ancient site made sense of the positioning of other graves and monuments in the area.
Mr Newman, who has been working on the Hill of Tara under the State-funded Discovery Programme since 1992, was delighted by the find. "It fills a very important place in the jigsaw because it allows us to make sense of the distribution of other monuments all around it."
The Discovery Programme, set up under the auspices of the Heritage Council, carried out a survey of the Hill of Tara between 1992 and 1996 when Mr Newman was director.
When Mr Newman moved to Galway he continued to be involved in the project Using sophisticated technology, he and his team of experts mapped what was underground. The work was slow and tedious because it yielded such a huge amount of information.
What they uncovered eventually at the crown of the hill was a huge, oval-shaped monument measuring about 170 metres at its widest point. Around it are 300 post holes measuring two metres wide, indicating a massive human effort involved in the construction.
"We think it probably dates from 2500 to 2300BC and still had a big physical presence even after the posts were taken out or rotted," Mr Newman said.
While the monument is located just below the ground's surface, there are no plans yet to dig it out.
"There was a time when excavation was the first step in archaeological research. That's not the case now because it really is the systematic destruction of a monument. When you are dealing with something as important as the Hill of Tara, you don't do something like that lightly."
Mr Newman reckons they will be able to learn more about the site from the data before the ground itself is finally excavated. "What we have is the clearest underground image I have ever seen. This one jumps off the page."
Mr Newman is concerned about a planned extension of the N3 motorway from Clonee to just north of Kells. One of the sections from Dunshaughlin to Navan runs along the east side of the Hill of Tara.
"I have absolutely no doubt that they will be destroying dozens of monuments connected to Tara." See more about the motorway threat to Tara.
From the Irish Examiner.
At least 100 new monuments have been discovered on the Hill of Tara, thanks to the deployment of non-invasive exploratory techniques. Geophyscial survey allows archaeologists to record the magnetic properties or electrical resistance of the soil, which is permanently altered by human activity, therefore proving that people once inhabited the area. For example, a bonfire or a burial will permanently enhance the magnetism of the soil around it. Similarly, a buried wall will act as a barrier to the movement of electric current passed through the soil and therefore significantly increases its electrical resistance.
An aerial view of TaraMr Conor Newman and Mr Joe Fenwick of the Department of Archaeology at NUI, Galway and the Discovery Programme, which is funded by the Heritage Council, have been researching Tara since 1992. The earliest monuments at Tara date from around 4000 BC. Close to 30 monuments had been recorded prior to the deployment of geophysical survey, which has greatly aided the research process and facilitated the discovery of approximately 100 additional monuments.
In three field seasons since 1999, the team at Galway has increased the geophysical survey area on the Hill of Tara by more than 13 hectares, making this by far the most extensive geophysical survey ever undertaken in Ireland. Plans are in place to survey the rest of the state-owned part of Tara in the next few years.
A host of new and interesting features have been revealed in the work so far. One of the most spectacular finds is a huge oval enclosure, equivalent to the size of Croke Park (170m North to South), which is believed to date from around 2500 BC. Referred to as a henge (see illustration), it comprises a 4m wide ditch, possibly up to 3m deep, on either side of which are great 2m wide pits. These pits probably held around 300 wooden poles between them. This oval enclosure encircles Ráith na Senad or Rath of the Synods and takes in the whole of the present day churchyard. It also includes a passage tomb known as the mound of the hostages. Like most of the monuments on Tara this is a temple or sacred compound of some sort.
A full report on this monument and others found in the course of the survey has just been published in the 6th volume of the Discovery Programme Reports and is available from the Discovery Programme and the Royal Irish Academy. The Discovery Programme has produced a detailed map of all of the monuments on the Hill of Tara using a combination of the geophysical survey finds and topography.
The topography map is in digital format, which means it is fully interactive. It can be interrogated and manipulated in order to reveal features that are otherwise barely visible. These techniques have confirmed that many of the monuments built on the Hill of Tara incorporated older monuments into their fabric. This allowed some of the ritual and historical importance associated with the older monument to be included in the new structure.
"Every new monument discovered at Tara adds to our understanding of the development of the complex," said Mr Newman. "For the most part, the monument builders of each generation observed, preserved and accommodated all of the older ones in a way that contributed positively and sensitively to the developing authority of Tara as a place apart," he added.
Close to half of the State-owned land on the Hill of Tara has been examined using geophysical survey so far and plans are in place to continue with this research and to survey the rest of the hill. However, much concern has arisen lately about the proposed route of the M3 motorway, which if approved, will pass right along the eastern foot of the Hill of Tara, crossing an area intimately connected with the great royal complex. This area also boasts an impressive concentration of archaeological monuments. "It is a reckless dereliction of our role as guardians of our common cultural heritage to drive a motorway through it," said Mr Newman. "If you disassociate a society from its past, it becomes rootless. Tara is a national treasure and a massive tourist attraction for Co. Meath. It should be managed not simply as a hilltop site but rather as a cultural landscape, just has been the case with places like the Boyne Valley," he added.