By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A huge new circular enclosure, believed to be a type of prehistoric wooden Stonehenge with a circumference of about a kilometer, has been found by scientists on the Hill of Tara in County Meath.
Scientists from the National University of Ireland in Galway and the arch’ological research body, the Discovery Program, came across the feature by chance when undertaking geophysical mapping, a form of underground X-ray, on the hill.
Since 1992 a program of arch’ological research has been ongoing on Tara, the ancient seat of the high kings and one-time religious and political capital of the country.
NUI arch’ology lecturers Joe Fenwick and Conor Newman took 80,000 individual measurements and were amazed as the features of the structure began to emerge on their instruments.
The monument is enclosed by a three meter-wide ditch with a series of pits on either side of it. The pits are evenly spaced about four meters apart. It lies between a half meter and two meters below the surface. Fenwick believes it is a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age pit circle or henge monument.
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"These henges seem to be of ritual significance. It is in keeping with the type of monuments that you have on the hill. Obviously Tara was a major religious focus for far longer than we thought," he said.
"People have assumed it was mainly an Iron Age site, but it appears now it was a major religious focus for over a few millennia before it fell into disuse during the early Christian period.
"We were very lucky to find it. There was absolutely no evidence on the surface that it was there. We suspect it may date back to as early as about 2,500 BC."
In international terms this would date the site to about 200 years after the first pyramid was built in Egypt and about 700 years before the ring of stones are thought to have been erected at Stonehenge on Britain’s Salisbury Plain.
"It certainly provides evidence that there was a lot of ritual activity going on there much earlier than we had previously thought. We have only surveyed about a third of the enclosure because it is so vast," Fenwick added.
It pre-dates the Iron Age Raith na Rí (King’s Fort) which cuts through it. It had been the major ritual enclosure on the hill associated with the pre-Christian kings.
Brian Lacey, manager of the Discovery Program, described the find as "very exciting" and said it would now have to be assessed to decide if any excavation is undertaken.
"Not a single atom of this is visible on the surface so we have to be cautious about interpreting it. Tara is a very important arch’ological complex with 30 visible monuments and our research has more than doubled that number already in terms of new features," Lacey said.
Tara gets its name from the Irish for lofty or sacred place and, due to its history as a regal capital and the legends that have surrounded it, the site has attracted some unwelcome attention.
Part of the hill was mutilated exactly 100 years ago by a group of British Isr’lites who believed they were a lost tribe of Isr’l. They dug holes to try and find the Ark of the Covenant which they believed was buried there.