Animal Bones Show Large Feasts Drew Crowds to Iron Age Ireland

(CN) – Long before tailgate parties or sprawling outdoor food festivals, there were the large-scale Iron Age feasts at the ceremonial site of Navan Fort in what is now Northern Ireland – and pork was on the menu.

Navan Fort, County Armagh - geograph.org.uk - 43871
Navan Fort, in what is now County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Also known as Emain Macha, ancient capital of Ulster. Settlement dates back to the Bronze Age. In 95 B.C., a circular 130-foot structure was built, burned down and covered with earth and turf to form the mound, thereafter used for the inauguration of kings. (Patrick Brown via WIkipedia)

According to a study published Tuesday, participants in the large-scale ritualistic celebrations dating from the 4th to 1st century B.C. transported their livestock over long distances from across Ireland. Some were brought from over 100 miles away.

Then there was the Barbary macaque skull excavated at the site that likely came from the Iberian Peninsula, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

Pig jaws and other bones found at Emain Macha, the legendary capital of Ulster now referred to as Navan Fort, were analyzed as part of the study. Archaeology professor Dr. Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion said in a statement that Iron Age communities on the Emerald Isle were very mobile.

“The high proportion of pig remains found there is very rare for this period,” says Madgwick. “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.”

Remnants of a temple and other buildings date back to the Bronze and early Iron Age, including an amphitheater-like building that was built to accommodate large crowds according to the study – suggesting the site was meant to host out-of-town guests.

Researchers say they only found one human collarbone at the site, but there were plenty of animal bones to be examined. Pigs dominated the list, though most startling find was the Barbary macaque skull that likely found its way to Northern Ireland from what is now southern Spain.

Pigs made up 63% of the bones excavated, followed by 30% from cattle and 8% from sheep or goat, which would have been unique for Iron Age Britain and Ireland according to the study authors.

Movement patterns of animals from outside the region were measured through strontium and sulfur ratios found in bone and teeth.

The unique chemical compositions of food and water consumed during their travels helps researchers understand the locations from where the animals traveled from and were raised.

By measuring the radioactivity of these bones, researchers were able to determine livestock originated from outside Northern Ireland. They note this is the first study of its kind and comparative data is scarce, so further detailed mapping is necessary in future studies.

“The catchment of the feasts at Navan Fort must have been substantial,” writes the study authors. “Animals provide a useful proxy for human movement, particularly in prehistory, when the vast majority of livestock would have been raised at a household level, rather than by specialist producers.”

Navan Fort was not the only destination for travelers and their pigs.

In another study published this year by Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, researchers note Stonehenge was a popular stop for pigs and their owners.

Approximately 4,000 travelers likely visited the monument during the later Stone Age. The prehistoric site in Wiltshire, England, was the destination for travelers who came from as far away as Scotland for feasts that were “unrivaled in earlier periods and rarely paralleled even after the Roman invasion,” according to researchers.

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