No Harps, No Hounds?


As a child my world stretched from the grassy mound at the top of the lane by our house, past the rectangular earthworks, to Lismullen school, also flanked by a mound, onwards through the woods to the ice-house encased in yet another mound and up the hill to Tara.

This childhood world of ditches and mud and mounds has been renamed by Conor Newman, archaeology lecturer at the University of Galway, as a ritual landscape, a sacred place adjoining Tara, the ceremonial centre. The mounds, probable neolithic burial places, are aligned on a north-south axis stretching from Tara. Still unnamed, these and other earthworks have been measured, mapped and recorded by Newman and his colleagues in an intensive three-year archaeological survey undertaken under the auspices of the Discovery programme.

"The Hill of Tara merges into this landscape, both literally and metaphorically, in so far as the absence of a clear dividing line between the Hill of Tara and its immediate hinterland is a metaphor for the mergence of ritual into everyday life in prehistoric Ireland," writes Conor Newman in his monograph on Tara.

In this comprehensive account, he describes the genesis of Tara, from the building of the first, possibly palisaded enclosure, part of which was found under the Mound of the Hostages. It dates to about 3000 BC, while the mound itself was constructed later, in the middle of the third millennium BC.

"Royal" Tara is, in fact, a palimpsest of prehistoric monuments dating from the Neolithic to the late Iron Age. In current archaeological parlance, it is a "ritual landscape" or "ritual complex". Tara is one of four such sites - the others are Emain Macha in Co Armagh, Cruachain in Co Roscommon and Dun Ailinne in Co Kildare.

There are a number of possible explanations for the name Teamhair (Tara). Teamhair may be derived from Teamur, the wall of Tea, the Egyptian wife of the mythological king Einmon. Another possibility is that Teamhair means a height from which there is a fine view. Newman's book opts for the mystical, explaining Tara as the meeting place of darkness and light.

For almost 4,000 years Tara was a pagan ritual complex, growing from palisaded enclosure to mound, to the third phase of building, when Tech Midchuarta, the so-called banqueting hall, was constructed. Perhaps the most devastating of Conor Newman's conclusions is that Tech Midchuarta never heard the twanging of harp, the growling of hound or the orations of ale-quaffing chieftains. He does not even believe it was a building.

Instead of a linear, once-roofed structure, it is a parallel-sided but slightly bow-shaped earthwork, a cursus, with a series of non-aligned gaps in the banks, probably once ending in boggy ground. Its location suggests a formal approach to Tara and the first monument to come into view as you ascend the grassy avenue is the Mound of the Hostages. Other, later monuments are aligned with Tech Midchuarta, which may have served some ritual purpose, perhaps signifying the passage from the world of the real to the other world.

The fourth phase of building at Tara dates to the early Bronze Age when Rath Maeve was constructed and the Mound of the Hostages was commandeered as a cemetery mound. Earthern ring ditches were constructed in the middle Bronze Age and building continued into the Iron Age with the construction of Rath na Rig and Rath na Seanad. The final phase was the conversion of Rath na Rig from ritual to defensive and the building of Tech Cormaic.

Throughout the 4,000 years of building and modification the predominant theme at Tara appears to have been imitation and assimilation. New monuments incorporated the old. In this way, the old potent magic may have been transferred to the new, compounding the ritual significance of Tara.

The Discovery team used non-invasive techniques such as topographical, geophysical, aerial and geochemical analysis to dissect Tara. The remains of more than 30 monuments are visible on Tara today. These range from imposing earthworks, to standing stones, to barely discernable circles. A further 75 to 80 monuments are buried beneath the mantle of grass, invisible to the eye.

Newman's monograph is designed as a baseline study for all further exploration of Tara. Data has been stored in digital format and then manipulated to produce images and three-dimensional computer models.

"All of the artefacts from the area were examined and some high-quality material, predominantly prehistoric, was found," says Conor Newman. This is the first time such a detailed survey, with a period of cogitation (the survey was finished two years ago), has been carried out in Ireland, he told The Irish Times.

The book includes a catalogue of monuments and an artefact catalogue as well as appendices detailing the methodology used. Occasionally inaccessible to the lay person, it is none-the-less a fascinating work, lavishly illustrated with high-quality photographs and diagrams.

However, the faint-hearted may prefer to stick with a previous publication, a guidebook, Tara, by Conor Newman and Edel Bhreathnach (£3 from the Government Publications Office and bookshops). Edel Bhreathnach compiled a select bibliography of Tara, in a parallel Discovery Programme project to Conor Newman's.

The work of the Discovery Programme, which is a State-funded archaelogical research programme, has been continued by Helen Roche, who has supervised excavations across the ramparts of Rath na Rig, over the past few months. Her finds indicate that Tara had a domestic as well as a ritual function. Her report, the next chapter in uncovering Tara's complex archaeology and history, is eagerly awaited.

You can visit the Discovery Programme at

Tara: An Archaelogical Survey, by Conor Newman, is published by the Royal Irish Academy. Price £28.