Throughout the Champlain Abroad Dublin’s Early Irish history course, we have been learning about the cultures and development of prehistoric Ireland, making our way towards medieval times. The first half of the semester focused on the Paleolithic, Megalithic, and Neolithic times of ancient history. The Paleolithic or “Old Stone Age” started approximately 9,000 years ago with the first human inhabitance of Ireland. From that point in time, people rapidly shifted their ways of living, from the tools they used to the type of lifestyle they led and the way the people honored their dead. The ingenuity of these prehistoric people carved the base line for the cultures we live in today.
After learning about burial tombs in the classroom, I became very excited to see one in real life. The first stop of our field trip was to Loughcrew in County Meath. Loughcrew is a Megalithic cemetery, meaning it was built approximately 5,000 years ago. We drove into the fields surrounded by sheep and down a tight road to the base of the peak. After climbing the muddy side of the “mountain”, we all stopped to take in the beautiful panoramic view of the villages and green fields below us.
At the top of the hill, lay the site of the main burial tomb, which, at first, appears to be a large mound with rocks all along the base. Our instructor, Kelli Malone, had retrieved the key to open the small gate so we were able to go into the prehistoric structure. Venturing inside the narrow walls of the tomb, I saw rock art carved thousands of years ago, as well as the massive rock slabs that served as the foundation of the tomb. While building the tomb, groups of people carried these rock slabs, which were almost four feet high, all the way up the hill we had just been winded by.
The burial tombs of Loughcrew serves as the final resting place for some of the most honored people in community. Most of the tombs at Loughcrew are affixed to specific solstices and equinoxes, a phenomenon that is seen throughout the country. The central tomb that our class had the honor of going inside of, is oriented to the autumn and spring equinoxes. In other words, when the equinox occurs, the light from the sun aligns perfectly with the opening of the tomb and shines down the passageway to illuminate the main chambers inside. The central tomb we visited is surrounded by the ruins of other tombs that once stood tall on the peak of the mountain.
The next stop on our field trip was to the Hill of Tara, which is also located in County Meath. The Hill of Tara is a famous staple of historical Ireland. Created during the Irish Iron Age, which dates back to the first century BCE, the Hill of Tara is known for its unique landscape of handcrafted banks and trenches. The Hill of Tara is also home to ancient monuments, such as the Mound of Hostages and the Lia Fail. The most significant emblem of Tara is marked by the historical belief that the High King had sat there for centuries.
|Birds eye view of the Hill of Tara|
The hierarchy of Ireland during this time period broke down to place local or “petty” kings in charge of various tribes, while the High King served as ruler of the country. This social arrangement is similar to that of the United States, in the sense of governors and a sole president.
Upon our arrival to the Hill of Tara, we were greeted by a massive statue of St. Patrick; according to legend, St. Patrick had once come to Tara during the early Christian period. We then walked to the Mound of Hostages, a burial tomb where hundreds once laid prior to excavation. Looking into this passage tomb, I saw rock art similar to the art within the central tomb at Loughcrew. Next, we walked through the colossal banks and trenches that must have taken several days of backbreaking labor to make. Crossing the bank, we came to a flat area of land in the center of the field. The standing stone, Lia Fail, also known as the crowning stone, stood almost in the center of the flat surface. According to legend, if the correct person touches the stone, they will be crowned the new High King of Tara. Of course, we each took our turning hugging the daylights out of this stone but sadly nothing happened.
|The standing stone, Lia Fail.|
Leaving the standing stone, banks and trenches behind, we made our way to the Banquet Hall. This area of Tara has a purposeful incline towards the center of the field and is enclosed by banks on both sides. At one time, this would have been the entrance to Tara, where foreigners would walk in, surrounded by armed warriors standing on both sides of the banks. Meticulously placed, the Banquet Hall skews any view of the center of Tara.
We then walked down the Banquet Hall and stopped at what looked like an empty field. Standing in the center of a ringed bank, our instructor informed us that she was standing on a cist burial (stone grave) of a woman. This burial is unique in its nature and discovery. Discovered by advanced archaeological equipment which unobtrusively scans deep down into the ground, this women’s burial signified that she was once of extreme importance. Directly after learning about this women and her discovery, we were led to another cist burial site. On the outskirts of Tara, three cist burial graves lay and were also discovered by high tech archeological equipment.
|From left to right: Becca Ramaci, Joanna Hermanns and Zach Wright.
Champlain Abroad Dublin students visiting Hill of Tara on a field trip
with their Early Irish History class. Each standing on a Cist burial.
After a fun day of experiencing these marvels of the past, our field trip came to an end. I am very grateful that I had the chance to be inside a passage tomb that was thousands of years old! On top of that, I explored the area where some of Ireland’s most important people from ancient history once resided. Through connecting the cognitive learning process of the classroom with the experience of being at these sites, I feel a closer tie with Ireland’s past. All in all, this field trip was a one of kind experience that I will treasure for a long time.
Champlain Abroad Dublin, Spring’14
Champlain Abroad Dublin, Spring 2014
Champlain College, Pre-Clinical Psychology’15