The Monuments of Tara
The oldest visible building at Tara is a small chambered cairn on the summit of the hill which is known as the Mound of the Hostages. The name probably comes from some of the many mythological stories associated with the monument. The mound is a chambered cairn or passage grave and was built around 3000 BC.
The passage is 4 meters long and is oriented to the southeast, to the sunrises on the November and Feburary cross-quarter days and has the same alignment as Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore in County Sligo. The chamber at Tara is divided into three compartments by two sill stones; the floor was paved with large flat flagstones. There is one decorated stone on the left side of the chamber.
The mound was excavated by Sean P. O'Riordan between 1955 and 1959; what you see today is the restored mound after the excavation. O'Riordan found evidence of an earlier structure under the mound. There is a stone cairn covered by a clay mantle. The Mound of the Hostages is 3 meters high, 21 meters in diameter and is one of the few known sites of this kind with no evidence of kerbstones.
The mound produced the largest collection of burials and associated artifacts from any Irish neolithic site. These finds included a 30 cm thick layer of cremated bones and a whole range of pendants, antler pins, pottery shards, stone balls and a minature Carrowkeel ware pot.
Use for burial continued throughout the Bronze age, when nearly 40 cremated burials were placed in the clay mantle of the mound. There was one inhumation, the body of a 14 year old boy, which was placed under a burial urn. Finds with this burial included fiaence beads which came from the eastern Mediterranean.
The Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny, which now stands at the centre of a fort called the Forrad, originaly stood outside the entrance to the Mound of the Hostages. It was moved to its present location at the centre of the Forraid in 1824 to commemorate the 1798 Battle of Tara. The stone is a granite pillar, 1.5 meters tall, and is said to be one of the four treasures brought to Ireland by the Tuatha De Danann.
Its fame rests in its power to recognise the legitimaite king: it would emit a mighty roar when the true king stood upon it, though some say it lost this power when Christ was born. The stone is extremely phallic in shape, so no wonder that that its Irish name is Bodh Fergus, Fergus' Penis. Fergus was Fergus Mac Roi, a champion of Ulster, one of Cuchullain's teachers and a lover of Queen Maeve.
It is said that there were four standing stones at Tara: the Lia Fail, Bolcc and Bluigne, which are located in the graveyard, and a stone known as Moel which has dissappeared. They are said to have been placed on the cardinal directions around Tara.
The Lia Fail has been confused with the Stone of Scone, which was taken from Ulster to Scotland about a thousand years ago, and was used to inaugurate the Scottish kings. Edward I took the stone to Westminster Abbey in 1300, and it was kept under the Monarch of Britian's throne until 1996 when it was returned to Scotland. It now resides in Edinburgh Castle.
It has been suggested that the Stone of Scone was the Ulster coronation stone, and that there was one for each provence; indeed, each local tribal area would have had its own inauguration stone.
Rath na Rig, the Fort of the Kings is a huge oval enclosure running around the top of the hill; it measures 320 x 260 meters and has a circumfrance of 1 km. O'Riordain had a section dug across the bank and ditch in 1953, and found that the ditch was 3.5 meters deep and cut from bedrock! That is a formidable piece of work. Because the bank is on the outside and ditch inside, it seems that this enclosure was more ritual than defensive in nature.
There are three entrances into the enclosure, at the northeast, northwest and southwest. The enclosure is dated to the Iron age, some 2000 years ago, from iron ore slag found under the bank. Some 2 meters in from the bank, a trench was dug, presumably the foundations for a wooden pallisade. The name, Rath na Rig is medieval, and indicates that the royal residence was in the inner monuments, the Forrad and Teach Cormac.
The Forrad and Teach Cormac are a pair of cojoined ringforts at the centre of Rath na Rig.