Forbidden Archeology

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

Nov. 21 — An enormous temple that was once surrounded by 300 towering oak posts lies directly underneath the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Irish archaeologists recently announced.

While the site is home to many known archaeological treasures, this latest discovery reveals that even more exist underneath the sacred hill.

Conor Newman, an archaeology lecturer at the National University of Ireland at Galway, located the temple, which he believes dates from 2500 to 2300 B.C. Since 1992, Newman has been preparing a survey of the area for the state-funded Discovery Programme. He found the Tara monument using an underground radar device.

According to a report last week in The Irish Examiner, the egg-shaped temple at its greatest width measures 186 yards. While the oak posts that probably once comprised an entire forest have long since disappeared, the existing post holes indicate each tree was approximately 6.6 feet wide.

The exact use of the monument remains unclear, but Newman and Aoife Kane of the Discovery Programme speculate that it held some ritualistic meaning.

"For thousands of years the region has been home to some of Ireland's richest farming land," Kane told Discovery News. "It is likely that farmers had the time and means to build such a monument for ritualistic purposes."

Breandán Mac Suibhne, program coordinator for the Keough Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said that such rituals were probably related to fertility.

In fact, one of Tara's most famous monuments is the phallic-shaped Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny. It likely played a role in early fertility rituals, and was later probably used to initiate the area's earliest kings.

Mac Suibhne explained, "The fertility idea merged into politics, as kings were believed to marry the land."

An overwhelming 142 kings were said to have reigned at Tara during prehistoric and historic times. Like the Stone of Destiny, the newly discovered temple may have evolved in meaning over time.

Newman told the Examiner, "(It) still had a big physical presence even after the posts were taken out or rotted." He added, "It fills a very important place in the jigsaw because it allows us to make sense of the distribution of other monuments all around it."

In addition to the temple and the Stone of Destiny, the Hill of Tara houses the remains of a number of large ring forts and tombs. Several other standing stones are at the site as well. Legend has it that would-be kings had to race their chariots towards two such stones.

According to Mac Suibhne, the site lost political importance around the 10th century as Dublin grew in prominence.

But, he added, "The Hill of Tara's sacred past and symbolic importance — representing Irish nationhood — remain with us today."

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