Ancient "Royal Temple" Discovered in Path of Ireland Highway

James Owen
for National Geographic News
May 15, 2007
The discovery of a major prehistoric site where experts believe an open-air royal temple once stood has stalled construction of a controversial four-lane highway in Ireland.

A large circular enclosure estimated to be at least 2,000 years old was revealed at Lismullin in County Meath, prior to work on a 37-mile-long (60-kilometer-long) road northwest of Dublin (see map of Ireland).

The find is located just 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) from the Hill of Tara, once the seat of power of Ireland's Celtic kings, and likely represents a ritual site, according to government archaeologists attached to the road project.

The new road is intended to ease congestion along a busy commuter route to Dublin but is fiercely opposed by campaigners who say it threatens a treasure trove of ancient remains.

Work was halted last month after archaeologists with the National Roads Authority (NRA) reported a large timber monument 80 meters (262 feet) in diameter, with a 16-meter-round (52-foot-round) structure inside thought to have been a temple.

Artifacts unearthed at the site include a stone axe head, a pottery fragment, and an ornamental pin. An ancient buried dog was also excavated nearby.

Archaeologists say the monument probably formed part of an important ceremonial complex centred on the Hill of Tara, where remains date back to the Stone Age.

Archaeologist Joe Fenwick of the National University of Ireland, Galway, described the Hill of Tara as Ireland's equivalent of Stonehenge or Egypt's Pyramids.

"It's commonly recognized that this valley [where the new site was found] is part of Tara, which is the pre-eminent archaeological site of our nation," he said.

Hill of Tara

The monument's valley setting and the small number of artifacts recovered so far suggest the enclosure was a ritual site rather than a human settlement, the NRA team said.

"Its low-lying position means you have no view once you're inside the monument, so you wouldn't have seen anyone approaching," said Mary Deevy, NRA chief archaeologist.

"This would be unusual for a prehistoric settlement. They are usually found on hilltops."

National University's Fenwick agreed that the enclosure seems to have had a ceremonial link to Ireland's prehistoric royal sites.

"The thing that gives it away is this funnel-shaped approach from the east between the outer and inner enclosures," Fenwick said.

"This is a recurring feature at all the major royal sites where you have a circular temple."

Ceremonies and worship performed at these monuments may have been related to cosmology and royal inauguration, he said.

(Watch a related video: "Ireland's Mysterious Newgrange Tomb.)

The site has yet to be precisely dated, but most experts believe it was in use some time after 1000 B.C.

"No matter what date the monument turns out as, we'll be able to link it to some phase of activity on the Hill of Tara," NRA's Deevy said.

Will the Road Go On?

"The chosen motorway route, unfortunately, goes right through the heart of this landscape," Fenwick added.

NRA officials have declared the Lismullin site a national monument, but this does not ensure its protection.

Legislation introduced in 2004 allows for national monuments to be "destroyed" if the environment minister considers such action "in the public interest."

"A lot of people think that this is what's going to happen," Fenwick said.

The Irish government is currently considering its options. Reports suggest the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin is urging a complete archaeological investigation of the site.

Meanwhile, activists are questioning why the Lismullin monument wasn't detected earlier, before the route was given the go-ahead, and are calling for the road to be rerouted.

Vincent Salafia of the nonprofit historic preservation group TaraWatch said the ancient enclosure is "without doubt a national monument of world significance. It would be a sin to demolish it."

Fenwick, the National University archaeologist, said: "It's not enough to reroute just around this particular site. People would argue that the motorway should be rerouted out of [what was] the royal domain of Tara altogether."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.