The fantastic origin of Emain was necessary to substantiate the fame of the great legendary capital of the Ulster Cycle of tales. Ireland's major contribution to mediaeval literature. These stories relate legendary events associated with Ulster's famous kings and warriors – Cuchullain, Conor mac Nessa, Conall Cernach, Fergus, their female counterparts such as Deirdre (of the Sorrows), Emer, and their great enemy Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connaught. What is perhaps not so familiar is the extent to which the landscape of these tales is rooted in Navan Fort and its surroundings. Today one can stand on the mound where CuchuIIain's father first raised the alarm that Ulster had been invaded in the great Irish epic, the Tain. It was on the ramparts that delimit the Navan enclosure that Deirdre first encountered her lover Noisi and it would have been beneath them to the northeast that she saw him and his brothers murdered in what is probably the most famous of all Irish tales (and the subject of plays by both Yeats and Synge). The surrounding green of Emain Macha, the playing fields, was where Cuchullain defeated the local 'boys brigade' at sport and where Cathbad the druid instructed his pupils. The great hall of King Conor, the Craeb Ruad or Red Branch, still carries on today in the name of the neighboring townland of Creeveroe. All this was the legendary Ulster Camelot with which Niall Mor hoped to associate the O'Neills.
What Niall was unlikely to have known was that equally fantastic archaeological remains lay beneath the overgrown ruins of Ulster's ancient capital. Excavations undertaken by the late Dudley Waterman of the Archaeological Survey revealed Navan Fort to be the premier archaeological site in Ulster. Beneath the deceptively simple mound that one sees today on top of the Navan enclosure Waterman successfully unraveled an incredibly complex story that extended over 3000 years. We can figuratively lift up the mound and examine the beginning of the main phase of occupation c. 700 BC. (a date disturbingly close to that of the legendary founding of Emain). Here a series of Bronze Age structures joined to larger circular enclosures was erected in the same place over a period of generations. At least one of the occupants was of very special importance as indicated by the most exotic item ever found on an Irish prehistoric site. In one of the enclosures Mr. Waterman discovered the skull of a Barbary age! Since exotic animals have always made the most precious of gifts, archaeologists see this as a suitably royal present from someone in North Africa or Spain to an Ulster king or temple.
By about 100 B.C. the area was cleared and the people of Ulster erected a great Celtic temple some 40 meters in diameter with a massive post, probably 12 meters high, in the very center. At this time they were also making use of the neighboring lake of Iough na Shade for Celtic rituals, since the lough has yielded four precious bronze trumpets and the remains of human skulls. One of the most curious aspects of the temple was its ritual demise. The inhabitants of the area filled it with cobbles to over a man's height. Then brushwood was placed on top and the whole thing set alight. Finally, they heaped sods on top to form the mound that is seen today.
There are only two other sites in Ireland truly comparable with Navan. One is Tara itself which shares Navan's odd arrangement of an outer bank and inner ditch, a structural reversal of what we normally find on a defensive site. Better still is Knockaulin, Co. Kildare. which not only has the bank and ditch arrangement of Navan but also its own large Celtic temple. Knockaulin is the site of the ancient capital of Leinster and helps bear out the thesis that the ancient spiritual centers of Ireland also served as provincial capitals. The evidence is strongest in Ulster where the only other major sites known to date to c. 100 B.C. are the great linear earthworks such as the Dorsey in South Armagh and the more famous Black Pig's Dyke The latter is a series of hanks and ditches which appears to have served as the southern defensive border of ancient Ulster in those places where natural defenses such as rivers, lakes or bogs were absent. This line of defense, generally associated with endemic cattle-raiding between Ulster and its southern neighbors, appears to have been erected when Emain was the spiritual center of the province Some would argue that this justifies the thesis that Ulster had already emerged as a distinct political or cultural entity by the first century B.C. Its capital was Emain Macha.