Hallowe’en is said to have originated from the Celtic festival of Samhain. One archaeological site that has been closely linked to this festival is that of Tlachtga in Co. Meath, Ireland, now known as the Hill of Ward. But what do we know about the archaeology of the site, and how does this tie in with folklore?
The Home of the Great Fire Festival
Tlachtga, which has been translated to mean ‘Earth Spear’, is surrounded by a great amount of mythology. The site is reputedly named after Tlachtga, a druidess who was also the daughter of Mog Ruith (a druid and sun god). The site was the location of a great fire that was lit on the eve of Samhain, a Celtic festival which begins on 1st November every year to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. All fires in the kingdom were extinguished and were relit from the sacred flame at Tlachtga on the eve of Samhain, giving the site great ritual importance and cementing it for many as the foundation site of the modern holiday of Hallowe’en.
The Hill of Ward
The site itself is a series of four ditches and earthen banks similar to the Rath of the Synods on the nearby Hill of Tara that appears from the air as a series of concentric earthworks on the top of the Hill of Ward. It is believed that sites such of these were high status ceremonial enclosures that originated from roughly the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age.
Until this year, no formal excavation had been conducted on the site. This summer, however, a series of test trenches and pits were excavated on the Hill of Ward by a team of students at University College Dublin and volunteers, following extensive geophysical surveys with the aim of finding material that could help to date the phases of the site. While a formal report of the excavations has not yet been published, the team have been publicising their findings at every step of the research process.
Three trenches were positioned over ditches identified using LiDAR and Geophysics. The ditches were found to have been cut into the bedrock. Huge amounts of bedrock had been moved, a staggering effort when you consider that no metal tools would have been used to assist this work. Dr Steve Davis, the excavation Project Manager, has commented that the ditches excavated appeared to be very similar to the ditch of Ráith na Ríg on the nearby Hill of Tara.
At the base of one of the trenches, the remains of a young child, probably younger than 10 months old, were discovered and appeared to be very old – possibly thousands of years. This find closely mirrors the discovery of the remains of a very young child at the base of the ditch of Ráith na Ríg.
A test pit also uncovered evidence of huge fires, which could possibly be evidence of the ceremonial fires that took place at Tlachtga during Samhain.
The project is now in the post-ex phase, and updates coming in include the dating of bone found in two of the Trenches to the late Iron Age (400-500 AD) and the bones from a trench positioned in an earlier enclosure to the mid-Iron Age (400-500 BC). More information will be coming out as the research continues, and we can’t wait to hear more from the project as time goes on!
Dr Steve Davis, the Project Manager, has documented the excavations online for Irish news website, TheJournal.ie. To read his updates, click here.
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