Digging up the Ancestors from Irish Bogs

We have news of another Bog Body found yesterday (11 August 2011) in Ireland by a worker harvesting peat.
The body was found in Cashel Bog in County Laois, and unlike many earlier bog body discoveries, this one was actually seen before it was ripped from the ground by the harvesting machine, so it has been possible to examine it where it lay. First indications are that it may be over 3,000 years old!

NMI and Bord na Mona workers examine the body in Laois. Picture RTE TV

There have been hundreds of bog bodies discovered in the peat wetlands of Europe over the last few centuries, about a hundred of which have been in Ireland. The cold, acidic and anaerobic conditions in peat bogs ‘pickles’ bodies so that they resemble brown coloured mummies. Skin and internal organs are preserved, but the bones are dissolved by the acid. The body discovered in Laois seems to have been placed in a leather bag. The legs are protruding and have been preserved, while the remainder of the body protected by the leather has not been preserved to the same extent, if at all.
It is estimated that about 1/6th of Ireland is covered in bog. As children, we were constantly warned about the dangers of ‘falling into a bog hole’ and often heard stories of people who vanished without trace,the assumption being that they had not heeded the warnings of parents!

When a bog body is discovered it is a truly unusual event. The question invariably arises as to how it got to be there in the first place. It is unlikely that someone whose head and torso is inside a leather bag  was an errant traveller who fell in. That leaves the possibility that the bog was used as a burial-place. However, some of the human remains discovered have signs of torture and or execution, with evidence of hanging, strangulation, stabbing and bludgeoning. So were they people who had been put to death for crimes against society, were they murdered by vagabonds, or could they have been ritually  sacrificed?

Clonycavan Man at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Picture Sven Shaw Commons.Wikimedia.org

In 2003 two bog body discoveries were made in Ireland: In  February near Clonycavan on the Meath/Westmeath border and, just weeks later in May some 25 miles away, at Old Croghan in County Offaly. Known as Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man, neither body was intact. Both these bodies were subjected to an array of tests and analysis using modern medical imaging techniques, pathology and other scientific methods, and were carried out by an international group of experts. Radiocarbon dating showed that both had died about the same time, some 2,300 years ago.  Clonycavan Man appears to have suffered a blow to the head that smashed open his skull, while Old Croghan Man showed signs of having been stabbed, beheaded and dismembered.  Ropes made from hazel were threaded through his arms.  Ned Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, in researching locations of bog bodies found in Ireland reported that there were some 30 to 40 instances of such remains found on or near ancient borders or boundaries. This would indicate the likelihood of human sacrifice. ‘My belief is that these burials are offerings to the gods of fertility by kings to ensure a successful reign’ he told the BBC.  ‘Bodies ‘ he said, ‘are placed in the borders immediately surrounding royal land or on tribal boundaries to ensure a good yield of corn and milk throughout the reign of the king’.

The results of the investigations into this latest discovery are eagerly awaited so that we might know how or why she or he died. In the meantime, we can say for sure that Cashel Man or Cashel Woman was someone’s child, may have had brothers and sisters and may have been a parent themselves. Who knows, he or she may well be one of our own family ancestors!
Kingship & Sacrifice is the title of an exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland that  is centred on the theory of bog burials on political or royal boundaries and has exhibits from Ireland and beyond. It is in Dublin, Kildare Street and admission is free.
Further Reading
Ireland’s Peat Bogs How Bogs are made.
The Bog Bodies  A Timewatch Documentary on the National Museum investigation into the Bog Bodies.
About these ads

2 Comments

Filed under Ancestry, Ireland, Irish History

2 responses to “Digging up the Ancestors from Irish Bogs

  1. Janet

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s exciting that there’s another find! (Interesting to see how the peat bogs are made too!)
    Janet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s