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Two miles west of the city is the great mound of Navan Fort, stronghold of the kings of Ulster from 700 BC. It occupies a key place in Heroic Age legend, notably in tales about Cuchulain. Whenever King Conor had a problem with Queen Maeve, the rather fierce ruler of Connaught, Cuchulain came to the rescue. The story is told in the visitor centre. In addition to detailing the mythology of the Ulster Cycle and the techniques used by archaeologists to uncover the fort, Navan Centre explores Celtic culture, rituals and beliefs of pre-Christian Ireland.
The site, on a circular enclosure, is 250 metres in diameter, surrounded by a bank and ditch. Unusually, the ditch is inside the bank, suggesting it was not built for defensive purposes. Inside the enclosure two monuments are visible. Off-centre to the north-west is an earthen mound 40 metres in diameter and 6 metres high. Also slightly off-centre to the south-east is the circular impression of a ring-barrow, the ploughed-down remains of a late prehistoric ceremonial or burial monument, about 30 metres in diameter.
Archaeological excavations have revealed that the construction of the 40 metre mound dates to 95 BC. A circular structure consisting of four concentric rings of posts around a central oak trunk was built, its entrance facing west (prehistoric houses invariably face east, towards the sunrise). The floor of the building was covered with stones arranged in radial segments, and the whole edifice was deliberately burnt down before being covered in a mound of earth and turf (there is archaeological evidence for similar repeated construction and immolation of Tara) The bank and ditch that surround the hilltop were built at the same time.
No secure date can be assigned to the ring-barrow, but excavations and geophysical surveys have revealed the remains of a figure-of-eight shaped wooden building underneath. The larger ring of the figure-of-eight was 30 metres in diameter, the smaller about 20 metres.
The building had been rebuilt twice. Similar, slightly smaller structures, each with a central hearth, were found under the 40 metre mound. Artifacts found in these layers show they were inhabited in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age (approximately 600 to at least 250 BC). Perhaps the most unusual item found in these layers was the skull of a Barbary Macaque, an ape creature only found in Africa.
Other artifacts found suggest that the people occupying the fort could possibly travel and trade with the African continent. An earlier Bronze Age structure, a circular ditch surrounding the mound, 45 metres in diameter, 5 metres wide and 1 metre (deep, was also found, and flint tools and fragments of pottery show activity at the site in the Neolithic (ca. 4000 to 2500 BC).
The only remains that are now left of Navan Fort, is a huge circular mound like an upturned basin, with a ring ditch.
Sites like the Giant’s Ring in Belfast are more visually spectacular, but Navan Fort is the most important archaeological and historical site in Northern Ireland.
There is free access to the Fort, but to appreciate the site’s history it is best to go into the Navan Centre, which has been creatively built into the side of a grass bank, to look like a large Bronze Age cairn.
The centre has detailed exhibitions displaying finds from the fort and the nearby man made pond, the King’s Stables.
There is also an exhibition about the excavation of the fort between 1961 and 1971, with old photographs and an enigmatic hologram showing how the fort’s appearance changed from the Bronze Age to the present day.
Visitors are also introduced to the legends of the site with an entertaining film in the audiovisual theatre. If you are visiting Armagh, this is truly a sight not to be missed and provides you with a chilling insight to the advanced nature of the creators of this wonderful place.