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Hill of Tara

Google Earth image finds ancient Irish settlement at Hill of Tara

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Hill of Tara

A Dublin lecturer has discovered an unknown prehistoric site at the Hill of Tara – without even leaving his desk!

Aidan O’Sullivan uncovered the 4,000 year old enclosure thanks to Google Earth.

The University College Dublin lecturer was preparing a presentation for his first year students when he noticed the site the traditional seat of Ireland’s ancient kings.

O’Sullivan was intrigued by the unfamiliar dark, circular feature in a field photographed by Google Earth.

The Sunday Times reports that the lecturer was able to verify that the soil mark was a large embanked enclosure, dating back 4,000 years.

The reports says the enclosure, between 263ft and 328ft in diameter, is 2,000ft southwest of Rath na Riogh (Fort of Kings) an Iron Age enclosure at the summit of the Hill of Tara used for enthronements and other ceremonies.

The UCD lecturer believes the site was probably used for open-air religious rituals by pagans in the late neolithic era or Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago.

It may also have served as a burial mound. O’Sullivan told the paper that the enclosure’s purpose could not be confirmed without excavating the site but few monuments on the Hill of Tara have been excavated.

He said: “It’s certainly part of the wider landscape of the Hill of Tara, focused on its western fringes, and is probably also linked to some other major monuments on this side of the hill.

“It adds to our knowledge of the sacred landscape of Tara.”

Thanks to the internet, O’Sullivan confirmed that the enclosure had not been previously recorded on an online database of monuments listed by the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

He also discovered that the site was not visible on any of the historic maps or aerial photographs provided by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland’s website.
He also exchanged emails with fellow Irish archaeology academics which suggested the site was a fresh discovery.

Ireland’s archaeological research institute has confirmed that Google Earth had uncovered the monument. It retrieved an aerial photograph it had commissioned of the area in 2008 and adjusted the colour coverage until the site popped out of the image.

O’Sullivan claims that this discovery is ‘indicative’ of how digital resources such as Google Earth are transforming the way archaeologists work.

He added: “It’s now possible to make new archaeological discoveries just sitting in your office.

“I was able to find the site, check that it was previously unknown and then work quickly with colleagues to get further evidence for it, and do all of that online. To an extent, that would have been inconceivable 10 years ago.

“Every year we are getting more and better digital information online, from Ordnance Survey Ireland, the records of the National Monuments Service, Bing, Google Earth. And that’s all without going out to do fieldwork.”
Aerial and satellite imaging is also leading to an increase in citizen science, O’Sullivan believes.

He said: “Just as amateur astronomers use telescopes in back gardens to identify distant galactic objects and then contact professional astronomers to get confirmation, so too could amateur archaeologists.

“With ordinary people working with institutes, universities like UCD, or museums, the prospect for archaeological discoveries is great.”

The Hill of Tara is the birthplace of Halloween as the site where the Celts celebrated Samhain, the pagan festival that marked the end of the old Celtic year and the beginning of the new.

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