The first noticeable structure within the Ráith Na Rig or Fort of the Kings is a Neolithic passage tomb known as ‘The Mound of the Hostages’, or to give it its correct Gaelic name ‘Dumha Na nGiall’. This is most likely the oldest structure at Tara and is believed to have been built sometime around 3000 B.C. This makes it over 5000 years old. The name is actually quite misleading; this was most certainly not a burial site for prisoners. Considering its location right next to the Royal Seat, the people that were buried here, would have most likely been of significant importance. The truth is that the term ‘Mound of the Hostages’ was a later name given to this mound and derives from the ancient custom of the Ard Ri taking members of lesser kings families into his own to ensure their loyalty. Although they are known as hostages, they would have lived quite good lives and would have been treated no differently than the Ard Ri’s own family. Why this burial mound was given the misleading name is unclear? Perhaps it was here where the exchange of hostages would have taken place, or maybe this part of the Royal city is where these hostages might have resided? One of the most famous Kings at Tara was Niall Noígíallach or Niall of the Nine Hostages. He was the founder of one of the most influential families in Ireland with twenty-six of his descendants becoming High Kings of Ireland. It is said that there are over 3 million people living today, whom are descendants from this bloodline. Niall was famous for his use of hostages and his name derives from the fact that he was said to have kept one hostage from each of the five provinces of Ireland and four from Britain, (yes back in the day there were five main kingdoms in Ireland, Uladh or Ulster in the North, Laigin or Leinster in the east, Mumhan or Munster in the south, Cruachan or Connacht in the west and Midhe or Meath right in the center).
The first thing you might notice is that its design is quite similar to the nearby Cairn at Newgrange, be it on a much smaller scale. Despite its age, it would appear to be in really good condition when compared with similar tombs at Knowth, Loughcrew and Newgrange. And it’s the only other site on Tara that has been properly excavated along with the Rath of the Synods. The mound itself is almost dome shaped, measuring approx 15-16 meters across which rises to a height of about 3 meters. As you can see from the diagram below there is a cut-out in the north east part of the mound for the enterance, which was framed by two standing stones. Today there is a big dirty Iron Gate and padlock preventing entry, but you can still peek through these bars and view the inside. The inner chamber is only about four meters in length, by about a meter wide and almost 2 meters in height. This four meter chamber is basically the outer chamber; there were two other similar chambers behind this. Presumably these were either blocked off or filled in after the extensive excavations back in the late 50’s. Thankfully there is a rather interesting items contained within the chamber. It’s a rather impressive orthostat, containing a number of engravings, which some say represent celestial bodies such as the Sun, Moon and Stars. Another theory is that it is a prehistoric calendar? Another interesting theory I came across, was that this was an ancient map of Tara itself. Whilst some parts do match up, it is not an exact match from what we can see today. But then the landscape of Tara would have well been very different back then.
The people whom constructed these tombs displayed a far knowledge of both construction and astronomy. As was common practise with many of these passage tombs, the Mound of the Hostages was aligned in such a way that the rising sun would shine down the passageway and light up the chamber. This only happens twice a year, on the morning of Feb 4, Imbolc and Nov 8, Samhain. The three main chambers were once used to store the remains of the deceased and the mound is believed to have been in use from the early Neolithic period right up until around 1600-1700B.C. presumably because they ran out of space? It was common practise back then to be cremated, and so the ashes or charred remains would be placed on the floor of the tomb along with some grave goods. During excavations their where many items such as bone pins, pottery, urns and stone beads found amongst the remains. It is believed that there were between 250-500 remains buried within the mound, each burial was covered over with a stone slab and stacked in layers. From previous excavations we know that many burials continued at the mound during the Bronze Age, in fact there were so many, that they ran out of room in the passage and had to resort to putting burials directly on the mound. With over 40 remains being removed from the mound, many contained cremated ashes which were covered by various urns. There was one full body recovered from the mound. It was that of a Bronze Age adolescent, who was put into a small pit on the mound in a crouched position along with a decorated bead necklace, bronze knife and awl.
After some recent archaeology investigations by the Discovery Programme at Tara some new evidence has been found which revealed that the entire hill of Tara was surrounded by a massive Henge dating back 5000 years ago. This find is said to have been a three meter wide trench with rows of large posts erected at a distance of one meter on either side of it. The top of the mound is the highest point on Tara and from here on a clear day; there are some stunning views of the surrounding countryside. You can even see Slane hill and the hills of Loughcrew. One of the great things about the solar alignment at the mound is that you can easily see it, weather permitting of course. Unlike the much larger tomb at Newgrange, where there is a lottery system in place to gain access at winter Solstice. On a final note there is a rather interesting connection between the Mound of the Hostages and a certain young hero Fionn MacCumhaill whose brave actions saved Tara on one faithful Samhain night. I won’t tell the full story here as I had planned to use it in a later piece. Some of you may already know about the Monster Aillén Mac Midgna whom terrorized Tara every year. On that faithful night Fionn was able to beat the Faerie magic of Aillén and chased him out of the great Hall at Tara. When he finally caught up to the monster it has been said that the fatal blow which killed Aillén was at the mound of the Hostages.