Ancient Irish Pagans Travelled Vast Distances for Large Feasts at Legendary Site, Ancient Animal Bones Reveal

Navan Fort is one of Ireland's most famous and important archaeological sites. Now, research has revealed that in the Iron Age, people from all over the island flocked to the area for large feasts, often traveling vast distances and bringing animals with them.

For a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of scientists analyzed the bones of 35 animals that were found at Navan—including, pigs, cattle and sheep.

This analysis revealed that some of these animals had been transported to the site from locations more than 100 miles away.

"Our results provide clear evidence that communities in Iron Age Ireland were very mobile and that livestock were also moved over greater distances than was previously thought," Richard Madgwick, an author of the study from the University of Cardiff in the U.K., said in a statement.

"The high proportion of pig remains found there is very rare for this period. This suggests that Navan Fort was a feasting center, as pigs are well-suited as feasting animals and in early Irish literature pork is the preferred food of the feast," he said. "It is clear that Navan Fort had a vast catchment and that the influence of the site was far-reaching."

For their analysis, the team investigated tooth enamel samples from the animals, which can help to determine their origins. The food and water that an animal consumes contains a certain chemical makeup that can be traced back to specific geographic areas. Researchers can examine the teeth to find signs of these chemicals.

"In the absence of human remains, multi-isotope analysis of animals found at Navan Fort provides us with the best indication of human movement at that time," Finbar McCormick, another author of the study from Queen's University, Belfast, said in a statement.

"Feasting, almost invariably associated with sacrifice, was a social necessity of early societies where the slaughter of a large domesticate necessitated the consumption of a large amount of meat in a short period of time," he said.

Previous excavations at the site—which uncovered evidence of a 130-foot-wide building and the skull of a Barbary monkey skull from Iberia—support the idea that Navan Fort was an important center for ritual gatherings.

ancient pig jaw
One of the pig jaws which was analyzed for the study. Richard Madgwick

Madgwick also published research earlier this year focusing on an analysis of pig remains from a number of sites near Stonehenge in England. This study revealed that the animals had been transported from as far away as Scotland and several other distant locations in the British Isles.

"Transporting animals across the country would have involved a great deal of time and effort so our findings demonstrate the important role they played in society," he said. "Food was clearly a central part of people's exchanges and traditions."

Navan Fort was the earliest capital of the Ulaidh people of early Irish history, from whom the traditional province of Ulster in the north of the island derives its name.

The site plays a significant role in pre-Christian Irish mythology. In fact, it was supposedly founded by the goddess Macha. Today the site—located in Northern Ireland—consists of a large earthwork circular enclosure that lies on a hilltop.