New clues at Navan Fort

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Recent survey work at Navan Fort, County Armagh, has revealed a series of previously unknown monumental structures from the Iron Age, as well as new evidence of medieval activity.

An aerial photograph of Navan Fort
Geophysical surveying at Navan Fort, a site of prehistoric significance, has uncovered details about different phases of its history. [Image: © Comparative Kingship Project]

Navan Fort is a prehistoric hilltop enclosure traditionally believed to be the ancient capital of Ulster. The internally-ditched, 240m-diameter enclosure contains several Iron Age monumental features, including an earthen mound covering the burnt remains of a 40m-diameter ceremonial wooden structure, and a ring-barrow-like earthwork. It has been the subject of much research over the years (see CA 360, 134, and 22), but a recent project carried out by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Aberdeen, now published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology (, has used a range of geophysical surveying techniques to dramatically change our understanding of the site’s evolution.

The surveys identified a possible new phase of monumental wooden architecture that pre-dates the mound and enclosure. Of particular importance are two large palisaded enclosures, which intersect to form a figure-of-eight shape, each with a big previously excavated figure-of-eight-shaped building in their centre. These structures appear to have been rebuilt four times, and they may be related to the series of four palisaded enclosures that have been identified surrounding the whole hilltop. At least one of these latter enclosures was truncated by a late Iron Age enclosure ditch that was constructed c.95 BC, at the same time as the 40m-diameter wooden structure mentioned above. The rebuilding of the structures and palisades and the repeated use of the figure-of-eight motif suggests that they may have been ‘ritual’ buildings of some sort, representing an important addition to Navan’s story as a major ceremonial centre.

The survey results have also led to new interpretations of some areas of the site, contradicting conclusions drawn from earlier excavations. Perhaps most significantly, the new features indicate that the entrance to the enclosure may not be in the east as was once assumed – and as it is at other ceremonial centres, such as Tara and Rathcroghan – but was located on the western side of the site instead.

Finally, the project has provided the first evidence that activity at the site continued into and throughout the 1st millennium AD and beyond. Previously it was thought that the enclosure of the site c.95 BC represented the final phase of its use, but it now appears that there are several structures and enclosures that can be dated to the early medieval period. Excavation is required to determine their exact function, but the identification of a medieval complex at the site’s centre significantly alters our understanding of Navan’s development – and offers archaeological links to the historical sources that refer to the site as a place of kingship in the medieval period.

A LiDAR image of the site
This LiDAR image shows the focus of the survey area, and major monuments, including the earth mound covering the 40m-diameter structure (Site B) and the ring-barrow earthwork (Site A). [Image: © Comparative Kingship Project]

This news article appears in issue 367 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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