heritage ireland

Digging Tlachtga: Discovering secrets from Ireland's past

Archaeologist Neil Jackman with the final part of his three-part series on the momentous dig on the ancient site of Tlachtga in Meath.

Tlachtga Image 2 (Main Image at top of piece) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

‘Tlachtga, tulach ordain liais,
forbaid mor rig co rochriiais
Tlachtga, proud and princely hill,
has seen the passing of many a stern king’ – The Metrical Dindshenchas

HAVE YOU EVER wondered about how archaeologists discover the story of the past? In the final of three articles in an exclusive series for, archaeologist Neil Jackman will take you behind the scenes of the exciting excavations at Tlachtga (The Hill of Ward) in Co Meath.

A team of volunteer archaeologists led by Dr Stephen Davis from UCD and site director Caitríona Moore, are attempting to discover the story behind one of Ireland’s most enigmatic sites.

In this, the last of the three pieces, Neil gives an overview of the excavation, and an insight into what was discovered. (for an overview of the history of Tlachtga and the background to the project please see the first article, and for a description of the work-in-progress please see the second article).

Tlachtga Image 3 Trench 1 under excavation Neil JackmanSource: Neil Jackman

This season's excavations at Tlachtga on the Hill of Ward, just outside Athboy in County Meath have come to an end.

The site is a large quadrivallate (meaning it is surrounded by four ditches and banks) enclosure, that appears today as a series of concentric earthworks on top of the hill.

Legend and folklore

Tlachtga is steeped in legend and folklore, and it is difficult to unravel any historical information from the mythology that surrounds the site. Much of what we know today is based on The History of Ireland, a book written by Geoffrey Keating in the middle of the seventeenth century.

In it, he details how the site was founded, and it is Keating who describes how at Samhain, all the fires across Ireland would be quenched, and the druids of Ireland congregated at Tlachtga to light a huge ceremonial fire.

Embers taken from this fire lit a great fire at Tara, and then all the fires of Ireland could be rekindled. This association of Samhain (the precursor to the modern Halloween) and ceremonial fires are what Tlachtga is most associated with today.

Every year at Samhain, people gather on the Hill in an attempt to recreate the ancient rites that Keating described.

The latest excavations at Tlachtga by Dr Stephen Davis from UCD and site director Caitríona Moore are part of an ongoing examination of the site.

The landscape around Tlachtga was studied by Dr Stephen Davis using LiDAR – a form of aerial survey that uses lasers to accurately record contours in the ground surface.

The results show that the landscape around Tlachtga and Athboy has a wealth of archaeological sites, revealing previously unrecorded enclosures and settlements.

The LiDAR analysis was followed by a targeted geophysical survey on the monument itself. This revealed an incredibly complex series of ditches and earthworks that show that the site has multiple phases of construction.

In the trenches

Tlachtga Image 4 a visitor checks Trench 2 for animal bones Neil Jackman Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

Three test trenches and three smaller test-pits were placed into the features identified during the LiDAR and geophysics.

Each of these trenches were targeted to answer specific questions about the site. Trench 1 was placed over a bank and ditch of the existing visible monument.

Trench 2 targeted a ditch that was identified during the geophysical survey.

Trench 3 at the southern end of the site also targeted a ditch identified during the geophysical survey. All the trenches have been laboriously excavated by hand, using spades, shovels, mattocks and trowels.

The overall aim of this seasons excavation was to retrieve material, like charcoal or bone remains, which could be sent for radiocarbon dating to inform us of the chronology of the site. In this the trenches were a resounding success, and numerous samples that can be securely dated were retrieved from all of the features.

What was found during the dig

Trench 1 was positioned at the northern end of the visible monument, and revealed that the ditch was cut through the bedrock that underlies the site.

The ditch was revealed to be quite shallow and it contained a rather sterile fill of stony soil. The bank that was located to the outside of the ditch was made largely of earth with stone, and a further ditch was located just to the north of the bank.

This ditch was found to be very wide (around 5m) but quite shallow with a depth of less than 1m from ground surface.

Small fragments of charcoal and burnt bone found within the lower layers of the material that accumulated within the ditch will allow us to obtain radiocarbon dates to establish what period the ditch belongs to, and how it fits in with the rest of the site.

Trench 2 was located to the west of the visible monument. This trench targeted a ditch that was part of a very large three-ditched enclosure that measures some 190 metres in diameter.

The geophysical survey revealed that this enormous enclosure runs underneath the visible monument, suggesting that it predates the monument as we know it.

Similarities to the Hill of Tara

This ditch is just under 3m in width, and measures around 1.5m deep, and it is very similar in appearance to the great ditch of Rath na Ríg on the Hill of Tara.

Again, the ditch was cut through the limestone bedrock, it must have been an absolutely enormous undertaking to create this monument without the aid of metal tools.

A number of fragments of animal bone were retrieved during the excavation of a small section of this ditch, and they will allow us to obtain radiocarbon dates.

Trench 3 was placed to examine a large circular enclosure south of the visible monument. We believe this enclosure could be from the earliest phase of activity at the site.

Like Trenches 1 and 2, Trench 3 also provided animal bone so we will be able to establish a solid chronology of activity on the site, allowing us to definitively state what period each of the enclosures belong to. Trench 3 also had another story to tell.

Tlachtga Image 6 Test Pit 2 under excavation Neil Jackman Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

An unexpected discovery

Carefully placed at the base of the ditch and covered with large flat stones, we discovered the remains of a very young child. The infant was probably less than 10 months old when he or she died.

Located at the base of the ditch, these remains are clearly of great antiquity, possibly thousands of years old.

The burial of a very young child was also discovered at the base of the great ditch Ráith na Ríg at the Hill of Tara. For the moment we can only speculate why these children were buried at the bottom of these large ditches at Tlachtga and Tara.

As yet we don’t know if the children died of natural causes or were sacrificed.

The remains were painstakingly cleaned and lifted over a couple of days to be removed to UCD in order to be thoroughly examined by an osteoarchaeologist to attempt to establish more about their story.

As well as the three main trenches, three small test-pits were also opened. The first was located to the south of the visible monument and close to Trench 3.

It revealed a narrow ditch-type feature of uncertain date. Test Pit 3 was positioned close to Trench 1, and rather than targeting any particular archaeological feature its role was to better understand the nature of the glacial subsoil and bedrock of the site. Test Pit 2 however produced some very intriguing results.

It was placed near the centre of the existing monument, and targeted what looked like a very large pit feature on the geophysical survey.

The excavation revealed a large pit, with evidence of disturbance at the upper levels, but as we excavated deeper we discovered significant evidence of large fires.

This may be the ceremonial fires of Tlachtga described by Keating, but it could be to do with later activity on the site.

The Annals record that Tlachtga was burned by an expedition of the Cenél Eógain in 908 AD, or it may be the remains of metal-working or a kiln from later periods in history, or perhaps even evidence from the seventeenth century activity at the site.

The significant layers of burning at the centre of the monument are certainly intriguing however, and we eagerly await the radiocarbon dates to tell us what period the burning belongs to.

What happens next

Tlachtga Image 5 Trench 3 Under excavation Neil Jackman Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

While the excavation has been completed for this year, we must now enter the post-excavation process. This involves a lot of work in digitising archives, plans and drawings along with actual post-excavation analysis of artefacts and finds.

Most important in the context of our excavation are the osteoarchaeological report of the burial, and the examination of animal bone reports and charcoal identification. Sieving of samples may provide some other plant remains for identification, and many soil samples have been taken for micromorphological work.

Following initial bone and charcoal reports we can then set about submitting material for dating. The post-excavation analysis and radiocarbon dating can be a rather pain-staking and rather slow process, and it is intended that future publications and articles will be written to cover the results.

Overall this season's excavation has achieved all of its stated goals. Material for radiocarbon dating has been retrieved and now we have a much better idea about the story of Tlachtga.

The team

Tlachtga Image 7 (please credit Joe Conlon) Joe Conlon Joe Conlon

The success of the excavations is thanks to the local communities of Athboy and Rathcairn for their wonderful support and interest throughout the excavation, particularly Joe Conlon, John Gilroy and Frances MacDonagh who were a great help, and Bernard and the team of Athboy Aviation at Ballyboy Airfield who gave me an unforgettable experience when they flew us over the site to get aerial photographs.

We are also very thankful to everyone who paid us a visit during the course of the excavations, over 340 people called up and it was wonderful to see the interest and enthusiasm for the excavations.

We are also extremely grateful to the support from the staff of University College Dublin; School of Archaeology, Senator John Gilroy, David Gilroy, Joe Conlon, Meath County Manager Jackie Maguire, Deputy Ray Butler TD and Minister Brian Hayes, and the funding provided by The Office of Public Works, Meath County Council, The Heritage Council and The Royal Irish Academy.

Finally, the incredible team of volunteers who worked so professionally and diligently on the site: Dr Stephen Davis, the site director Caitriona Moore, trench supervisors Jean, Niamh, Siobhan and Clíodhna, and the volunteers Mick, Clare, Abi, Aika, Elena, Katherine, Susan, Sarah, Christine, Christine, Melanie, Stephen, Rene, Ursula, Julie, Lorcan, Jackie, Peter, Rory, Wayne, David, Liam, Paul, Sam, Martin and Micheál.

Not forgetting the landowner Mark and his family, who were incredibly generous, helpful and patient throughout the project.

We look forward to discovering more of the story of this enigmatic site in the future.
Thank you to all who followed the excavations on our Facebook Page.

In the next edition, we return to highlighting more of Ireland’s wonderful heritage sites, and suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, a fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past - with many of them absolutely free to download from

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites, then please consider following Abarta on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

Read: Digging Tlachtga: Getting into the trenches with Ireland’s past>

Dig this: How we plan to get to heart of one of Ireland’s most mysterious sites>

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