Emain Macha (Navan Fort)

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Emain Macha (Navan Fort)

Emain Macha, the traditional seat of the kings of Ulster and the capital of the Ulstermen (Ulaid) depicted in the Ulster Cycle of tales, has been identified as the present Navan Fort, an enclosure approximately two miles west of the city of Armagh. This monument, measuring 236 meters across, is situated on a small hill and is surrounded by several other prehistoric sites, most notably Loughnashade, a natural lake that has yielded evidence of Iron Age depositions; Haughey's Fort, a late Bronze Age hillfort; and the King's Stables, an artificial pond created circa 1000 b.c.e. Navan was excavated between 1961 and 1971.

Emain has been variously identified with two sites in Ptolemy's second-century c.e. geographic dictionary of Ireland: Isamnium, whose linguistically reconstructed form (*Isamonis or *Isamnis) might be the antecedent of *Emnae Emain; or the northern Regia ("royal site"). In early Irish tradition the name of the site was fancifully derived either from the eo-muin (neck-brooch) that Queen Macha, the eponymous founder of Emain Macha and euhemerized Celtic deity, employed to draw out the shape of the enclosure, or from the emain (twin[s]) that the semidivine Macha Sanreth gave birth to at the site after defeating the royal chariot team in a race. Early Irish pseudohistorical or traditional genealogies and king-lists indicate that Emain served as the capital of the Ulstermen from the seventh (or fourth) century b.c.e. until the last Ulaid king at Emain was killed in 324 or 332 c.e., when "rulership of the Ulaid departed from Emain" (O'Brien 1962, p. 325 ).

The site was initially occupied in the Neolithic period, circa 3500 b.c.e., and then again during the Bronze Age, circa 1000 b.c.e. At this time the occupants constructed on top of the hill a small enclosure formed by a wide but shallow ditch and an internal row of timber uprights—perhaps a ritual precinct. The interior of the enclosure was subsequently occupied by a figure-eight structure that was renewed on a number of occasions; the skull of a Barbary ape, imported from North Africa, was found in one of the wall-slots. A larger figure-eight enclosure (with rings 30 meters and 20 meters across) was then erected nearly adjacent to the first set of rings; this structure appears to have been burnt. By 95 b.c.e. the initial area of building had been cleared, and a circular forty-meter structure was erected, with a massive central post and five concentric rings of 280 oak posts. This building (there is debate as to whether it was roofed or not) was then filled with limestone cobbles, timber around the perimeter was fired, and the entire edifice was covered with sods to produce an earthen mound. At about the same time the hill was enclosed by an earthen bank and an inner ditch.

Emain Macha has been traditionally interpreted as a royal site along with Tara, Knockaulin, and Rathcroghan, the first two having figure-eight ritual structures similar to Emain's. The medieval literature that describes royal activities on these sites may be anachronistic reconstructions, but the archaeological evidence suggests that all of these sites were major ritual centers during the Iron Age.

SEE ALSO Dún Ailinne; Cú Chulainn; Myth and Saga; Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland; Táin Bó Cúailnge; Tara


O'Brien, M. Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. 1962

Waterman, D. M. Excavations at Navan Fort, 1961–71. Completed and edited by C. J. Lynn. 1997.

J. P. Mallory