A recent publication in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (https://doi.org/10.1017/ppr.2023.6) has brought to light a major archaeological complex – spanning in date from the Neolithic to the Iron Age – on Faughan Hill in County Meath, placing it within a wider monumental landscape.
While cropmarks at the site were apparent during OSI aerial survey in 1995, the site was not assessed archaeologically until 2013 when a gradiometry survey was carried out by the Discovery Programme. This was followed in 2016 by a further geophysical survey undertaken by the Tara Research Project in collaboration with the Römisch-Germanische Kommission and the University of Galway. Between the two projects, 15.7ha of the site were analysed, revealing a plethora of prehistoric features (above right). To assess these in more detail, and determine a possible chronology, an excavation was then conducted in 2017 by the Discovery Programme’s Tara Research Project, funded by the Royal Irish Academy. Two trenches were opened: one positioned across an inner ditch identified in the surveying work, and the other across an outer enclosure.
The results revealed that the earliest feature on the site was a slot trench, which probably once held upright wooden stakes interwoven with wattle, dating to the middle Neolithic period (c.3635-3380 BC). A wide array of knapped lithics was also found, suggesting that tool production was carried out on the hilltop during this time.
While radiocarbon dating of a charcoal deposit and a possible pit to the late Neolithic indicates that use of the site continued, it was not until the late Bronze Age that the next major construction appears to have occurred: a large enclosure encircling the hilltop. Roughly 400m in diameter, it is one of the largest hillforts yet discovered in Ireland. It is defined by two rock-cut ditches set 7-8m apart, with noticeable gaps at the north-east and south-west side, which possibly represent entrances. An inner enclosure, 50m from the outer, was defined by a single ditch, also partially cut into the rock, with a causeway entrance to the north-east and an internal diameter of 270m. The entrances between the inner and outer enclosure are on a similar alignment, which seems to indicate that they were contemporary with each other.
By the early Iron Age, the enclosure appears to have fallen out of use, or saw reduced activity, based on the dating of infill layers in all three ditches. During the 1st millennium BC, however, metalworking appears to have been conducted near the outer enclosure. Slag found there is consistent with the waste produced by early bloomery iron-smelting, although it can also occur from iron smithing or copper production, so it could be that metal-working at the site continued into the early medieval period.
Overall, the project has found four discrete phases of activity, spanning some 3,000 years. This helps add to our understanding of the wider monumental landscape in the area, which is home to a number of other prehistoric settlements and ritual sites, including the Hill of Tara – with its significant prehistoric burial and ceremonial monuments – 15km to the south-east.
Image: © Discovery Programme/Römisch-Germanische Kommission; Orthophoto: © OSI. Reproduced under licence no. EN0059212