Dún Aonghasa

Aerial view of Dún Aonghasa. Photograph by Ronan Mac Giollopharaic
Aerial view of Dún Aonghasa, photograph by Ronan Mac Giollopharaic via Wikimedia

While doing some research on northern European hillforts recently, I found myself looking at some pictures of Dún Aonghasa (also known as Dun Aengus). It’s an impressive site. The fort is a series of concentric half-rings backing up onto 100-meter cliffs on the island on Inishmore off the western coast of Ireland. The earliest construction on the site has been dated to around 1100 BCE. Later additions were made around 500 BCE. It is one of the largest well-preserved examples of a type of structure that was built throughout northern and western Europe, from Spain to Sweden, in the prehistoric era.

The "cheveaux de frise," a barrier of jagged stones set up to slow down attackers. Photograph by Herbert Ortner
The “cheveaux de frise,” a barrier of jagged stones set up to slow down attackers, photograph by Herbert Ortner via Wikimedia

There has been disagreement in the scholarship about the function of Dún Aonghasa and similar forts. While often identified as fortified settlements, some have suggested that they were actually sites of religious ritual. It has to be said that if Dún Aonghasa and sites like it were religious sanctuaries, they were amazingly well-defended ones. I think it is more likely that sites that were originally built for defense were centuries later repurposed as ceremonial sites, much like how medieval castles built for defense have centuries later become museums and tourist attractions.

The walls of Dún Aonghasa and the cliffs of Inishmore. Photograph by Jal74
The walls of Dún Aonghasa and the cliffs of Inishmore, photograph by Jal74 via Wikimedia

It may be hard to believe that such an enormous fortification was built in so remote a place, but forts like Dún Aonghasa were once fairly common across western and northern Europe. Most, however, have been lost to decay, erosion, and the reuse of stones. It is only in remote places like Inishmore that they still survive.

Thoughts for writers

Just a simple thought today: the world is full of interesting possibilities. Fortresses don’t have to look like medieval castles. Religious sites don’t have to look like cathedrals or Greek temples. History is huge and there are amazing things out there to inspire your imagination.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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