Shining new light on The Baltinglass Hillfort complex using LiDAR Survey 2022

Rathcoran Hillfort ariel view
Dr. James O Driscoll

The Baltinglass landscape and its importance in Irish Prehistory

Surrounding the town of Baltinglass in Co. Wicklow is an incredible concentration of large enclosures positioned on the highest points in a series of prominent hilltops at the southwestern edge of the Wicklow Mountains. Until recently, they have been interpreted as Bronze Age hillforts (Condit 1992; 1998; Raftery 1994, 63; Waddell 1998, 356; Grogan 2005b, 124), massive enclosures built by high status-elites which acted as the central locations for a chieftainship, their followers and the disparate community that surrounded these hills. Survey and excavation at the Baltinglass sites has identified some of the earliest, largest and most complex examples of this monument type known from Ireland or Britain, and artefacts, such as a kite-shaped bronze spearhead, along with monuments such as stone circles, standing stones, fulachtai fia and ring-barrows, infer that the Baltinglass area was of exceptional importance during the Bronze Age.

Our investigations around Baltinglass have also revealed a significant and unprecedented Neolithic landscape, dating three of the large enclosures to Early Neolithic. These are an incredibly rare site type that can be linked with the influx and development of farming some 6000 years ago, and as such, are crucial in our understanding of how societies developed during this period of transition. To date, there have only been a handful of these sites discovered in Ireland, making the identification of the three new examples near Baltinglass of exceptional importance. Not only is the concentration of these sites unique in Ireland, but the three monuments are by far the largest examples identified in the country, and are set within a landscape comprising a notable cluster of Neolithic sites and artefacts which include rare and poorly understood monuments like ceremonial cursus’, passage tomb cemeteries, the embanked stone circle at Castleruddery and Linkardstown burials.

Very little in the way of Iron Age monuments or artefacts can be identified in the Baltinglass landscape, however, the rich early medieval textual evidence associated with this area indicates that the region continued as a preeminent centre, with important regional dynasties, like the Uí Cheinnselaig and latterly the Uí Máil, using the landscape as their royal caput. The significance of the landscape in the early medieval period is recorded in sources such as the Bórama Laigen and Fingal Rónáin, as well as a number of entries in the annals that refer to an important royal fortress in the area known as Dún Bolg, which has been linked with the complex of en­closures on Spinans Hill. This, along with a number of previously unrecognised early medieval sites, such as the incredible cemetery settlement at Rathmoon; an early domnach church site; and ogham stones, reveals a heavily mythologised landscape that was instrumental to dynasties emerging from the shadows of the Iron Age, and one that, for a time perhaps, was comparable in importance to the so-called ‘provincial capitals’.

LiDAR Survey of Baltinglass Hills 2022

Thanks to the Community Monuments Funded LiDAR Survey of the Baltinglass Hills in 2022, we now have a more nuanced (although certainly not complete by any means) understanding of the chronology of the Baltinglass landscape.

Its importance in the Neolithic, with its unique concentration of massive enclosures, passage tombs, cursus monuments and burial sites, might now be seen alongside the pre-eminent Neolithic landscapes of Ireland, such as Carrowmore, Carrowkeel, Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley. However, distinct from these landscapes, Baltinglass saw monumental construction of sites continue into the Bronze Age, with some of the earliest, largest and most complex hillforts known from Ireland or Britain, setting this landscape apart as an area of exceptional historic importance.

The new LiDAR survey of the Baltinglass landscape has enhanced every aspect and time period, with the addition of new cursus monuments and possible hilltop enclosures impacting the Neolithic landscape; the massive hillforts and burial monuments such as ring-barrows  impacting the Bronze Age landscape, and the dozens of large and smaller enclosures impacting the Iron Age and early medieval landscapes.

Outcomes from  the LiDAR survey

The large-scale LiDAR survey of the Baltinglass landscape has identified hundred of potential new archaeological sites, including impressive prehistoric burial monuments, a large number of enclosures of possible early medieval origin, rare ritual cursus monuments and massive new hilltop fortification which can be regarded as some of the largest archaeological monuments in the country. The survey, therefore, has been a great success, and will help to transform our understanding of one of Ireland’s most important prehistoric landscapes. The survey will also help us to preserve and manage these monuments and landscape, and will inform future presentation and dissemination of this landscape to both academic and public audiences. The survey can also have a continuing impact on archaeology and outer sectors, with the data being usable for planning and development, flood-plain management, and so forth.

The Baltinglass Hills LiDAR Survey was funded by the Community Monuments Fund (CMF) in 2022 and follows on from research into the Archaeological Significance of Baltinglass Hills by Dr. J. O Driscoll & Alan Hawkes funded through the CMF 2021. The CMF assists the conservation, research and interpretation  of archaeological monuments  by communities and private owners. The scheme is funded by the National Monuments Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and is administered in Wicklow by the Heritage Office of Wicklow County Council. For queries contact Deirdre Burns, Heritage Officer

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