In the 1970′s the skull and jaw of a Barbary Ape were discovered at the Iron Age site of Navan Fort (Eamhain Mhacha) in Armagh, dating from sometime between 300-100 B.C.E. The Ape, or at least its skull and jaw had travelled thousands of kilometres across Iron Age Europe and Africa to Ireland.
When we put this in the context that the Romans were still fighting wars a few miles from Rome itself at this stage, its seems incredible and mysterious that an ape’s skull should arrive in Ireland at this point. There’s a real temptation to write a history/archaeology mystery piece about this, but the story is probably far more straight forward, indeed the focus on the mystery aspect tells us more about how we view the world than what past societies were like!
While it is one of the most intriguing finds in Irish Archaeology, it is after all the skull of a Barbary ape in Ulster over 2,000 years ago, it may not be as mysterious as we would like it to be, particularly when we look at how it probably travelled to Ireland.
The Ape no doubt travelled an enormous distance dead or alive across two continents (almost certainly dead I imagine). The Ape came from modern day Morocco and is the same species found on the rock of Gibraltar today. From about the 8th century BCE until the 2nd century BCE North Africa was within the influence of the Carthaginian trading Empire (until it was destroyed by Rome in 146 BCE). The Carthaginian’s were outstanding traders and sailors and had trading posts across the Mediterranean stretching to the Atlantic coast of Iberia, including what would become Barcelona, Carthagena and Cadiz.So the Ape getting from Africa to Europe was easy with frequent Carthaginian ships crossing the Mediterranean.
Once in Spain travelling Northwards across Europe was easy enough too but probably quite slow. Transcontinental trade in Western europe was widespread since the since the Bronze age – there is quite a substantial body of evidence of trade routes stretching up through modern day France and indeed across the English channel, Irish sea and even the Celtic sea which stretches between modern day Ireland and France. Many objects from far flung destinations have been found in Ireland long before the Ape skull – many bronze age jewellery pieces have been fashioned from amber from the Baltic while a gold Torc found inland at Roscommon was directly imported from the continent around 400 BCE. Technological and cultural developments roughly in-line with European developments also show the constant if perhaps slow and infrequent level of contact between Ireland and the continent since deep in our prehistory. So again for the ape to get to Ireland is not particularly mysterious either.
The Ape Arrives
We can assume then the ape finally arrived in Ireland sometime in the last few centuries B.C.E perhaps taking a circuitous route. (It is also possible the skull moved quite quickly perhaps on a Phoenician trading ships which did operate to a certain extent in the Atlantic Ocean.) When the Ape got as far as Ireland it was no doubt a precious object, so its little wonder it would find its way to somewhere like Navan Fort.
What was Navan Fort?
Navan Fort (Eamhain Mhacha in Gaelic) which was occupied for several centuries before about 100 BCE is an Iron Age earth work. Situated in modern county Armagh in the Ulster, the complex was the royal centre of Early Ulster and one of the major centres in Iron Age Ireland having immense symbolic importance being frequently mentioned in early histories.
There were several phases of development at the site stretching over several centuries. The most famous and little understood is a structure that formed by an earthen bank enclosing five concentric rings of wooden posts. For unknown reasons indicating the sites ritual* importance, this complex was burned and covered in an earthen mound in the early years of the last century BCE.
The Barbary Ape was discovered beneath this mound telling us that it was placed there before the site was intentionally covered over sometime after 100 BCE. So in short the ape was discovered at a highly important royal site in iron age Ireland, a site controlled by elites who had the ability to source such a rare object.
So what does this all say?
While its tempting to focus on the mysterious aspect of the Ape Skull trying to develop complex theories about how it got here, we get far more information by just looking at it for what it is another example of trade and communictaion in Iron Age Europe.
Western History and Archaeology are prone to the “Great Civilisation” view of the world where nothing happens until a Greek, Roman, French, Spanish, of British Army has arrived. This is a massive distortion of history. While the skull is fascinating we should look at it as an example of the early processes and trading routes that later cultures like the Romans built on rather than looking at it as something almost incomprehensible and mysterious.
Roman power did not fall from the sky but like every other power incorporated and copied existing routes and cultures – those same routes that brought the Ape to Ireland. The ape is also a reminder about the sophistication of prehistoric societies that could enable an object to travel such distances if perhaps slightly slower and on a more indirect route than their roman followers.
*Usually when archaeologists use the word ritual it means “I dont know what this is but I want to sound like I know what I’m talking about”
If case you havent had a chance to hear it Episode 8 of the podcast is out now. Check it out here.