The fully intact skeleton, possibly belonging to a 7-10 month child, was unearthed during a three week excavation at Tlachtga, on the Hill of Ward near Athboy Co. Meath.
One of Ireland’s most enigmatic sites, the Hill of Tlachtga features impressive circular earthworks which are best seen from the air. Medieval texts link the site to Samhain, the ancient Celtic Festival which is the precursor to modern Halloween.
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“We may never know what caused the death of the child. The skeleton probably dates back 3,000 years and was found on the bedrock at the base of a 1.5m (3-foot, 28-inch) ditch,” lead archaeologist Stephen Davis, at University College Dublin, told the Irish Examiner.
Excavation and surveys carried out using airborne laser revealed the area was a “key ritual site.”
“The site has several different phases of monumental enclosures and we believe them to be associated with festivals and rituals potentially dating back as far as 1,000 B.C.,” Davis said.
Sitting on top of the Hill of Ward, Tlachtga is a site steeped in folklore. According to Irish mythology, it got its name from the daughter of the powerful druid Mug Ruith. According to legend, the remains of the druidess, who is said to have died on the hill after giving birth to triplets, are buried there.
Tlachtga is also believed to be the site of the Great Fire Festival in which sacrifices were offered to gods on Samhain eve. All hearth fires throughout Ireland were extinguished and then lit again from a central fire on the hill.
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Meaning summer’s end, Samhain was a great festival of the dead — a time when the doorways to the otherworld opened and journeys could be made from one side to the other.
The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was believed to be the thinnest on Oct. 31, a day which lies exactly between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.
The excavation revealed the monument of Tlachtga is actually the last of at least three phases of enclosure on the hill.
“As a working model for the phases of construction, at least one small enclosure, about 15 inches in diameter, was enclosed by a very large, tri- or quadrivallate enclosure, about 650 feet in diameter, which was replaced by the monument we see today,” the archaeologists said.
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The excavations also brought to light evidence of burning, which could have been ritual fires or the result of glass-making, Davis said.
He believes the child was most likely not the victim of any human sacrifice on the ritual site.
The remains have been taken to the School of Archaeology at University College Dublin for further examination.