New research examining animal bones from Navan Fort in County Armagh (led by Dr Richard Madgwick at Cardiff University) has demonstrated that Iron Age people were travelling significant distances with their livestock to visit this ceremonial centre.

Reconstruction drawing of a large Iron Age structure with a roof covering half of it, posts and post-holes visible in the other half
A reconstruction of the large Iron Age structure at Navan Fort, believed to be a centre of ceremonial feasting. [Image: D Wilkinson]

Navan Fort is a site of prehistoric significance, traditionally held to be the ancient capital of Ulster and home to the remains of a vast Iron Age structure, 40m in diameter, which suggests ceremonial use during this period. The animal bones in the study (recently published in Scientific Reports) comprise at least 104 animals, dominated by pigs, which is unusual in assemblages from Iron Age Britain and Ireland. Taken together with the large Iron Age structure, this high proportion of pork – described in early Irish literature as the preferred food for feasting – in the diet at the site points to large assemblies and communal feasts, the team suggests. Pigs are suited to feasting as they can be raised rapidly and efficiently, eat household scraps, and can be killed without affecting a secondary product economy such as milk or wool production.

Due to a lack of human remains at the site, these animals were used as a proxy for human movement – as they are thought to have been brought ‘on the hoof’ by the people who raised them as a contribution to the feast – and isotope analysis set out to determine where the Navan Fort animals had been raised, in order to reconstruct the site’s catchment area. A combination of strontium and sulphur analysis was especially useful, because strontium can reflect an area’s underlying lithology (characteristics of particular rocky outcrops), while sulphur reveals its proximity to the coast – thereby potentially providing information about the animals’ origins through the chemical signatures preserved in their bones.

The study found that the animals at Navan Fort reflected a wide range of strontium values (one of the largest in British Isles, second only to Durrington Walls, which had a much larger dataset – see CA 334) and a relatively broad range of sulphur values. This suggests that the animals were from a wide range of locations across Ulster and beyond, and that it was likely that none were raised locally to Navan Fort. Furthermore, it appears that the animals were brought in small numbers from many locations, which would be consistent with people bringing household animals to Navan Fort to contribute to feasts from a wide catchment area.

You can read the Scientific Reports paper at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-55671-0.


This news article appears in issue 360 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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