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Tara, the mound of the Hostages by Muiris O’Sullivan
Wordwell, 2005. 307pp, over 200 illustrations and plates (some colour), 18 tables and 10 appendices, hb ISBN 1869857933 (€ 60)

We have repeatedly been exhorted in recent years to view Neolithic monuments not as static artefacts but more as works in progress, subject to successive remodelling and renegotiations of meaning and significance. Such monuments were also, from their first foundation, powerful sites of memory. There can be no better illustration of these two precepts than the Mound of the Hostages at Tara.

Tara has long been well-known as the famous royal centre of the proto-historic period. The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall) owes its name to 19th century scholars who sought to identify visible monuments with places mentioned in 11th century manuscripts, associated with shadowy historical characters and events. In fact, as the excavations reported here revealed, the Mound of the Hostages proved to be several millennia older than this, and is indeed the earliest of the major monuments on the Hill of Tara. The character and age of the monument were, however, entirely unknown until Seán Ó Ríordáin, Professor of Celtic Archaeology at University College Dublin, began excavations in 1955 and identified it as a passage tomb.

The Mound of the Hostages has featured prominently in subsequent discussions of Irish chambered tombs, not least for the abundance of the human remains recovered from the chamber, and the complexity of Neolithic cremations and inhumations within and around the mound. Yet despite a number of preliminary reports, the full account has had to wait for almost half a century. The circumstances of the excavation itself were tinged with sadness. Ó’Ríordáin had planned three seasons, and began work in 1955 but fell ill and died before the third season could be completed. The baton was passed to his successor at Dublin, Ruaidhrí De Valera, who directed the projected third season in 1959. Thirty years later, Muiris O’Sullivan assumed the major task of seeing the final report through to publication. The result is a volume which reads partly as a window back into the 1950s, partly as testimony to the perseverance of O’Sullivan and his team in working through site notebooks, boxes of finds and specialist reports to produce a coherent account. Above all, however, in the author’s own words, ‘it is a tribute to the careful excavation techniques and record-keeping of the field-workers that so much information can still be retrieved from their findings.’

The core of the volume consists of three chapters that take us through the key components of the site: features beneath and around the mound; the megalithic tomb and its associated cists; and the covering cairn and mound.

A hint of Mesolithic presence is furnished by a single Mesolithic flake, and there is slight evidence of early Neolithic activity in the form of radiocarbon dates on charcoal beneath the mounds (plus some sherds of possibly early 4th millennium pottery) but activity begins in earnest during the second half of the millennium with the construction of the passage tomb. This was covered by a stone cairn which in turn was capped by a clay mound. Unlike other Irish passage tombs, neither cairn nor mound were edged by an orthostatic kerb, but the monument was encircled by a series of cremation deposits lying outside the edge of the cairn, many of them within small settings of schist slabs. The chamber itself conformed to the tripartite plan characteristic of many Irish tombs but was remarkable in two particular respects: in the numbers of individuals represented (a total of around 200, both cremations and inhumations); and in the presence, against the rear of the orthostats, of stone-built cists containing a further 63 or more individuals.

The excavation and interpretation of these chamber deposits was considerably complicated by the presence of Early Bronze Age burials accompanied by Food Vessels: for example, two successive crouched inhumations had been made in a pit dug into the Neolithic cremation deposit in the inner compartment of the tomb. A further series of Early Bronze Age burials had been inserted into the clay mound overlying the stone cairn. A small difference between the dates for Bronze Age burials in the chamber (four dates 2281-1943 BC) and in the mound (fourteen dates 2131-1533 BC) lead the authors to suggest that the burials in the mound may have begun only when the chamber itself was considered to be full. (One small note of criticism here is that the calibrated dates are quoted with 1-sigma intervals, although the 2-sigma intervals are provided in appendix 7). Also from this period are some 30 fire pits around the base of the cairn, which may have been ‘a sanctifying ritual associated with the expansion of burial activity from the tomb interior to the mound.’

Two features of this sequence are especially interesting. The first is the complexity and chronology of the Neolithic funerary activity in and around the chambered mound. The three cists at the back of the orthostats are built within the bedding trench that had been cut into the bedrock to receive the orthostats. They were sealed once the covering cairn was built. At the same time, dates from the cists, from a sample of bone in the orthostat bedding trench, and from Neolithic material within the chamber itself were contemporary. This appears to indicate what has often been suggested but can rarely be demonstrated, that the tomb chamber initially functioned as free-standing funerary structure before the cairn was built around and above it.

The second feature of special interest is the rhythm of activity on the site. The authors suggest that the Hill of Tara ‘may already have been a place to visit before the Neolithic’ but what is particularly notable is the apparent lull in activity between the last Neolithic deposits in the tomb chamber (c. 2900 BC) and the renewal of interest in the Early Bronze Age, some six or seven centuries later, when a dozen or so burials were inserted in the chamber and a further twenty or more in the covering mound. What happened during these centuries? Did Tara lose some of its importance for a while, or did activity switch to another area on the hill?

Another interesting suggestion is the possibility that the clay mound might have been added during the Early Bronze Age specifically to allow the insertion of additional burials. The original excavators rejected the idea because there was no evidence of slippage around the edge of the stone cairn, such as might be expected had it been left exposed for several centuries before the clay capping was added. Yet the case is not conclusive and the possibility remains open that the Mound of the Hostages was significantly altered during the Early Bronze Age by the addition of an outer envelope. It is certainly clear that the ring of Early Bronze Age fire pits encircles the foot of the clay mound fairly tightly.

As these comments make clear, the detail included in this volume allows the unusual nature of the passage tomb and the complex sequence of constructional and depositional events to be studied in some depth. Certain previously published conclusions, such as the total number of Bronze Age burials in the mound, are revised. The confused stratigraphy, especially within the chamber, has been greatly clarified by 58 radiocarbon dates (both conventional and AMS) run at the Groningen laboratory. In sum, this volume enables the Mound of the Hostages to take its rightful place as one of the key sites for the understanding of Irish passage tombs, and to shake off the cloud under which it has languished for the past 50 years.

The volume is also a pleasure to use. Coloured diagrams allow the complex phasing of the site to be followed with exemplary clarity, and key finds, too, are illustrated in a series of colour plates. It is all the more regrettable, given this generally high standard of production, that the key cross-sections (pp.12-13) and overall site plan (pp. 24-25) are so tightly bound into the gutter that they are largely unusable. Against this, however, must be balanced the wealth of photos from the original excavations that are reproduced here, and make this not only a key excavation report but also a fascinating historical document.

Chris Scarre
Durham University

Review Submitted: October 2006

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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