1997:419 - RATH NA RÍOGH (TARA), CASTLEBOY, Meath

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Meath Site name: RATH NA RÍOGH (TARA), CASTLEBOY

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 31:33 Licence number: 97E0300

Author: Helen Roche, Discovery Programme, 13–15 Hatch Street, Dublin 2.

Site type: Prehistoric enclosure

ITM: E 691478m, N 759722m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.579392, -6.618595

Excavation was carried out at Tara, Co. Meath, from August to November 1997 as one of the Discovery Programme’s research projects. The objective of the excavation was to re-open and extend two cuttings across the northern side of the large enclosure, Rath na Ríogh, originally excavated by Professor Seán P. Ó Ríordáin between 1952 and 1955, and to record and sample the stratigraphy using modern methods to answer specific questions. Owing to his untimely death the results of the excavation were never published, and unfortunately only a portion of the archive survives.

Rath na Ríogh encompasses the summit of the hill and is defined by a ditch and external bank. It was hoped to date the earthwork, using artefacts and material suitable for radiocarbon dating, and to clarify the relationship between the enclosure and a palisade trench which had been recorded c. 2m inside the ditch. The 1950s excavations had also revealed a black, charcoal-rich layer which had been interpreted as being sealed by the bank of the enclosure. This layer contained metal slag and other material indicating industrial activity. It was an objective of this season’s excavations to attempt to determine its exact position and nature.

It was also proposed to excavate a third cutting elsewhere around the circumference of Rath na Ríogh, partly to compare the stratigraphy with the evidence from the first two cuttings and partly to test the results from the geophysics already compiled by the Discovery Programme. However, owing to lack of time it was decided to concentrate on the two areas excavated by Ó Ríordáin.

The 1997 season’s work was very rewarding and the evidence uncovered by the 2m-wide extensions was more informative than had been anticipated. What has now emerged is a sequence of activity which appears to date mainly from the Iron Age. The earliest recognised evidence (Ó Ríordáin’s black layer) was found and confirmed to be sealed beneath the bank of the enclosure. Excavation revealed that the source of this black, charcoal-rich layer was debris from a bowl furnace. Throughout the layer, and especially around the immediate area of the furnace, were found quantities of iron slag, tuyère and crucible fragments, some with bronze residue, bronze stems and droplets, and small iron objects which await conservation before identification. The most interesting iron object found is a complete socketed axehead. It is necessary to wait for the conservation of the object to be completed before positive identification and dating can be carried out. Blue glass fragments were also found within the charcoal-rich layer. Trenches, possibly the foundation trenches for associated structures, post-holes and up to 200 stake-holes were also revealed. The full extent of these features could not be excavated as they continued beneath the unexcavated area of the bank.

The area of industrial activity was sealed by an old sod layer, above which the bank of Rath na Ríogh was constructed.

A most impressive feature is the magnificently imposing nature of the ditch, reaching a depth of up to 3m and up to 7m in width. Animal bones, including the articulated skeletons of small animals, were found, especially in the lower fill of the ditch. A portion of a glass bracelet and a fragment of a bronze fibula were also found low in the ditch fill.

Ó Ríordáin had excavated two short portions of the palisade trench. During the 1997 season these areas were reopened and examined, and a new area, 6m in length, was excavated between his cuttings. Although the finds which Ó Ríordáin recorded and the few found during the recent excavation suggest that it is contemporary with Rath na Ríogh, because of the lack of clear stratigraphical evidence it is not possible to establish with certainty the relationship between the enclosure and the palisade trench.