The Hoy Family

Navan Fort - Legendaty Capital of Prehistoric Ulster
by Chris Lynn


Navan Fort, legendary capital of the prehistoric kingdom of Ulster, is one of the largest and most enigmatic monuments of the early Iron Age in Ireland. A flat-topped drumlin or glacial hill is encircled by a large ditch and an external bank. The views from the top are extensive and would have provided an appropriate open-air setting for communal ceremonies.

The site is known in early written sources as Emain Macha. Emain may mean 'twin' and Macha is the name ol the goddess of the region. Macha is also an element of the name of the city of Armagh some 2.5km to the east. The site is portrayed in The early literature, chiefly The 'Ulster Cycle' of tales, as the headquarters and sacred place of a king, Conchobar, and his warriors who go out to defend The borders of the kingdom of the Uladh. The events ol the tales are imagined lo have happened in The last two centuries BC.

The central tale of the Ulster Cycle, Tain Bo Cuailnge or 'The Cattle Raid of Cooley', describes a raid by The army of Queen Medh of Connacht. Some scholars suggest that the tales contain a genuine memory of warfare that led lo the downfall or the kingdom of Ulster and the abandonment of its capital at Emain Macha. Others assign The Ulster tales to myth or epic, no less significant in terms ot prehistoric belief.


A place built for ritual

The monument is an enclosed sacred space, delimited by a circular-plan earthwork, a bank with an internal ditch, 250m in diameter. On The north The ditch and bank run across The top of the hill, but on The south they descend almost lo The base of the hill. The earthwork is best preserved on The south-west but has been almost completely levelled on the east. Here a large, squared oak timber found wedged in the bottom of the ditch in a test excavation in 1998 was dated by dendrochronology to the first decade of The first century BC (100-90 BC). Therefore The monument was probably built at the beginning of the first century BC. Today's approach to The hilltop follows The curving line of the earthwork up the hill on The west. The bottom of The ditch is perhaps some 3m beneath the present surface. Where best preserved, the bank, downslope to the west, is some 15m wide and 4m high.

Large earthworks of various types are characteristics of Irish sites identified in early literature as later prehistoric provincial centres, such as Cruarhan, the capital of Connachl, and Tara, The capital of Mealh. Earthworks comparable wilh Navan Fort occur at Tara and al Knockaulin, Co. Kildare, identified as the legendary Dun Ailinne, chief site of the province of Leinster.

ditchSouthern half of the late Bronze Age ditched enclosure with the Inner ring of post-pits.


There are two other, smaller monuments on the hilltop. Both were excavated by D. M. Waterman in the 1960s. The first, called 'site A', is a large, ploughed-down ring-barrow. The second, 'site B', is a mound 50m in diameter. A large oak post found in the base of the mound was dated by dendrochronology to 95 BC, showing that the mound and the surrounding earthwork were built at the same time.

Excavating the mound

Before excavation, The site B mound was thought to be a Neolithic passage tomb, and it was compared with the 'Mound of the Hostages at Tara. But the excavations revealed something completely unique and unexpected.

A late bronze Age enclosure and timber structure.

Around 500 BC a circular-plan, ditched enclosure was constructed on the level summit of the hill. The ditch was 5m wide and 45m in internal diameter. Four metres inside the line of the ditch a concentric circle of 28 substantial posts, 4m apart, was erected. No contemporary internal features were identified. In the absence of any clear utilitarian or defensive explanation for the shallow ditch and enclosed circle of isolated posts, there is a possibility that they were used for ceremonial purposes.


Iron Age Figure-of-eight buildings.

After an interval a series of large, circular-plan Iron Age wooden structures was built on the site of the timber circle. These structures were in use from about 250 BC until around 95 BC. The buildings averaged 14m in diameter and had entrances on the east. Attached to them on the north (forming an overall figure-of-eight on plan) were larger circular enclosures some 20m in diameter, thought to have been open-air working areas. The northern enclosures were approached and entered by an 'avenue' running up the hill from The east.

The southern wooden buildings ol the Iron Age phase were constructed in groups of three concentric wall foundation trenches. The excavations revealed three successive groups of triple wall slots. The most remarkable find from The Iron Age occupation was the skull of a Barbary ape; the animal was presumably brought from North Africa in the second century BC.

It seems very likely that the occupants of the site at this time had a royal or priestly status. This is supported by the size and design of the wooden structures, their placement in an older (late Bronze Age) ditched enclosure with ceremonial significance and their replacement by another ceremonial monument.


Plan of Iron Age circular wooden buildings with attached open-air enclosures to the north (figure-of-eight structures).

Site A

The level area on the summit ol the hill extends to the east, where the large ring-barrow of site A was buill. This has a ditch some 40m in diameter, 2m deep and 5.5m wide, with an external embankment. Limited excavation of the ditch demonstrated that it had been cut through a set of three concentric foundation trenches for wooden-walled structures, similar to those found at site B. More recently, geophysical survey demonstrated the existence of a larger, circular-plan set of concentric trenches to the north of site A, known as 'site C, which join with the circles found under site A to form a large figure-of-eight plan structure.

Excavations in 1999 demonstrated that site C dates from the Iron Age. Site C is, therefore, another large and intriguing ceremonial structure.

The site B mound: the temple in the cairn

Site BReconstruction of Iron Age circular house with attached open-air working area, set within the late Bronze Age ditched enclosure.

The site B mound was a three-part structure built on the site of the Iron Age figure-of-eight structures and the Bronze Age timber circle.

Timber building

The first component was a large timber building. 40m in diameter, comprising five rings of large oak posts—some 280 altogether. On the west side three parallel rows of posts ran in from the entrance to form three 'aisles'. The aisles ran up to and around a large post placed at the bases of a few of the posts survived deep in the ground, but the positions of most were marked by deep post-sockets and by vertical voids in a large pile of boulders which was heaped up inside the building (see below).

The central post was erected with the aid of a 6m-long ramp, sloping down into a socket some 2m deep, where the slump of the post was preserved. The post may have towered above the rest of Ihe structure. Dendrochronological study of the post showed that it was felled in 95 BC.

A cairn of boulders

While the limber building was still standing it was filled with limestone boulders. The posts were encased in the cairn and when they rolled they left vertical voids. The cairn was 2.8m high and its outer edge had been retained by the plank wall of the limber structure. The parts of the timber building that were still exposed, its outer wall and superstructure or roof, were deliberately burned. There was evidence that bundles of twigs were placed against the outside of the timber wall to set it alight.

As soon as the fire had died down, the cairn was covered with a mound of carefully layered turves, soils and other deposils evidently collected from a variety of environments. The mound extended to a height of 2.5m above the flat lop of the cairn and, like the limber building and cairn, contained no finds or bones that might give a clue as to its purpose.

This mound in Navan Fort is one of the most intriguing monuments of the Iron Age. It is clear that the builders of the mound wished to create a lasting monument that had a symbolic or ceremonial purpose. Some authorities have suggested that the timber building was a lemple and that when it began to show signs of decay its existience was commemorated by encasing its remains in a mound. The excavator concluded, however, that Ihe construction of the timber building, the insertion of the cairn, the burning and the covering mound of turves were planned from the outset as a coordinated series of ceremonial activities.

The Navan mound could have been a form of 'mesoeosm', a halfway house between man and Ihe universe, a resource that could be used by future generations of the Uladh to inaugurate their kings in accordance wilh appropriate ritual observances.

Top left: Plan of the 40m-dlarneter limber building.

Top right: Reconstruction of the 40m structure, showing the 'aisles' running from the west to Ihe central post.

Below: Cairn surface from the west, showing radial divisions. (Photo: Crown Copyright)

The archaeological landscape

Navan Fort is the best known and best preserved of a number of prehistoric monuments in Ihe area, forming a distinctive landscape.

The Dorsey

Some 25km to the south of Navan. a series of defensive earthworks in Dorsy townland appear to straddle a routeway leading into Ulster. To judge from the dale of an associated palisade trench, the earthworks, known as 'the Dorsey', were built at exactly Ihe same time as Navan Fort. Closer to Emain Macha, in Ihe lownlands of Killyfaddy and Lisnadill, linear earthworks transect the same route corridor. These may well also date from the Iron Age.

Haughey’s Fort

Haughey's FortIn Tray townland, I km west of Navan, is a large Bronze Age hillfort, some 350m in diameter, known as 'Haughey's Fort'. It has three widely separated rings of defensive works. Excavations by Jim Mallory demonstrated the scale and date of the ditches. The site appears to have been constructed around 1100 BC. In the interior there were pits containing Bronze Age finds and concentric curving arcs of post- and stake-holes. A few features dated from the Iron Age, showing that activity in Haughey's Fort also took place at the same time as Navan Fort was in its heyday.

At Ihe north-eastern foot of the hill dominated by Haughey's Fort and of similar date is a small and unusual monument known as 'the King's Stables'. This is an artificial pond some 25m in diameter and 2.5m deep, surrounded by a broad irregular bank. Trial excavations revealed that the monument might have been used for sacrificial purposes. Fragments of moulds for casting leaf-shaped bronze swords, part of a human skull and numerous red deer antlers were found in the thick mud at the bottom of the pool. Recent investigations of parallel ditches running to the south of the King's Stables and east of Haughey's Fort in Creeveroe have demonstrated that they are also of Bronze Age date.

This small lake, immediately east of Navan, was a significant feature of the ancient ritual landscape. Its existence may have been one of the reasons why the site for Navan Fort was chosen. In 1798 four large bronze horns or trumpets were found while digging a drain; nearby were several human skulls. Only one of the horns, decorated in La Tene style, survived; it is now in Ihe National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Loughnashade may have been used for ceremonies at broadly the same time as Navan Fort. There can be little doubt that ihe siles were closely connected ideologically and functionally.

These monumenis form an unusual concentration that would be regarded as very significant archaeologicatly even if the early literature was completely silent about the ancient prestige of Emain Macha. It appears that the 'ritual landscape' of earthworks was mainly created in the Bronze Age and that the construction of Navan Fort was the culmination of a long history of ceremonial activity.

The Site B mound from the south east.

Navan Fort and nearby sites: Haughey's Fori, Ihe King's Stables and Loughnashade.

All of the photographs and information about the three generations of the Hoy family on these pages has been gathered by Bob Hoy of Arlington, VA. The information for the book "Story of the Hoy Family" was compiled by Bob Hoy and the artwork was done by Lou Smull. Bob is the son of Frank Hoy from the second generation born in this country and Lou is the grandson of Frank's brother Tom.