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Hill Forts

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Hill Forts of Ireland

As the Bronze age drew to a close, Ireland's climate darkened and became colder, which may have led to raiding and battles between clans as food and supplies became scarcer. Around this time, great hill forts began to be constructed, great defensive enclosures built on a high place, with earthen or stone walls following the contours of the hill on which it was built. Stockades, ditches and defensive fields of sharpened rock were also added to the fortifications, such as at Dún Aonghasa.

The growing populations of Bronze age Ireland began to build these strong places around 1400 BC, although some date back to the Neolitihic, and they quickly developed into larger settlements of a thousand to ten thousand people, clan seats and centres of ritual and production. The chieftains or kings of the region would each rule their own hillfort, and farm or rent herds to their followers, marking the begining of increased social complexity and artistic sophistication.

There are almost forty hillforts across the country, some with multiple rings of walls, but most with a single embankment. As time went on their function seems to have shifted, with some eventually serving more as monuments and ceremonial sites than as defensive positions. This was especially true where hillforts were utterly destroyed by an enemy, with perhaps the remnants of teh defeated clan coming to mourn their losses and plan vengeance at the site.

The predecessors of the hill forts are known broadly as earthworks, which include henges, smaller embanked areas with one entrance, and ceremonial enclosures, henges with evidence for burials within their walls. These are often found near to Roayl Sites and sometimes have other monuments inside them.

Another kind of prehistoric earthwork is the cursus monument, long lines of earth mounds laid side by side, about ten meters apart and up to half a kilometer long. Cursus monuments are clearly aligned with burial monuments in the landscape, as well as the rising and setting sun during major solar events such as the solstice.

Although they were originally thought to have been constructed for sporting competitions, these days they are considered to have a ritual or spiritual purpose, symbolising the ascent of the dead into the heavens, with the cursus marking final route of the dead, where they left the land of the living and joined their ancestors beyond the distant horizon. A large group of them was recently uncovered by researchers using LIDAR.

The last kind of ancient earthworks in Ireland are the barrows - a name which is also applied to various kinds of passage and portal tombs - but which in Ireland means late Neolithic, early Bronze age graveyards. They were mostly like henges, small circles or ovals marked out by earthen ditches, with a single central raised mound, although some had neither a surrounding wall nor a ditch. There are more than three thousand of these sites, in gatherings of several dozen each, across Ireland, and their use continued well into the Iron and even Christian ages.

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