Bogs are an integral part of Ireland’s natural landscape. These waterlogged, nutrient rich patches of land are used as a source of fuel, as an entire ecosystem for wildlife and plantlife, and even as a tourist attraction for certain off-the-wall activities like bog swimming! Working in the bog cutting turf is a long held tradition in Ireland and almost a rite of passage for people growing up in ruralregions (read our previous post about our experiences of turf turning to find out more); and as most Irish people will tell you, there’s nothing quite as comforting as the warmth and distinctive aroma of a real turf fire on a cold, rainy evening.
As you might expect, Ireland’s bogs have been around for a long time and have been used by humans for various reasons over thousands of years. As a result many artefacts from our ancient ancestors have been discovered, and because of the unique chemical qualities of the bogs they are almost always perfectly preserved. Objects found range from jewellery to ancient manuscripts and even barrels of butter (read our post about bog discoveries for a full roundup). However, probably the most incredible discovery is human bodies, still completely intact with flesh, bones, and even hair still in place.
What is a bog?
A bog is a type of wetland that accumulates peat, a deposit of dead plant material like mosses and shrubs. They are found on land where surface water is acidic and low in nutrients, in regions with cold or temperate climates – i.e northern Europe, parts of Russia, and parts of North America. They provide a home for multiple rare plant and animal species, and their cool temperatures and low fertility results in slow plant growth and even slower decay. In Ireland bogs are found along the mountain slopes of the west coast, throughout the midlands, in the Wicklow mountains and in a few small patches around the North. There are several different types of bog found around the world, but in Ireland the two types commonly found are Raised Bogs and Blanket Bogs. Blanket bogs are found in mountainous areas with heavy rainfall such as the Galtee and Knockmealdown mountains (to name a few), and are relatively shallow – typically only around 1.5 metres deep. Raised bogs – the kind that cover most of the midlands of Ireland – are found in lowland areas and are much deeper, stretching to around 8 metres in depth. These flat and deep bogs provide for the commercial peat industry and is where most of the ancient artefacts have been found.
The way in which these two types of bogs formed is quite different. Blanket bogs came about when neolithic people first began farming. Ireland would have been almost entirely covered in forest at this point, but the trees were more sparse on the highlands so they chose to start farming there. Clearing the trees resulted in nutrients leaching from the soil, water building up in it, and smaller plants beginning to grow which made the soil acidic. Layers and layers of decomposed plants build up and, combined with acidic water, resulted in bogland.
Raised bogs however formed as a result of the Ice Age, which ended in Ireland around 7000 BC. As glaciers made their way over the land they left uneven terrain which water collected in, forming thousands of tiny lakes. Over time reeds grew at the base of the lake, decomposed and built up layers of peat. Eventually the peat grew to such an extent that it absorbed most of the water, turning the lake into waterlogged earth, i.e bog. The lakes that were once there however were enormously significant for the Celts, who thought of them as spiritually significant sites. They would often make offerings to their gods by placing items like gold jewellery at the bottom of the lake – these objects would then have become covered by peat until they were discovered by modern humans thousands of years later!
What are bog bodies?
Simply put, bog bodies are human bodies found buried in bogs that have been naturally preserved because of the conditions of the soil: high acidity, cool temperatures and low oxygen. The actual level of preservation depends on many factors, but bodies from as far back as 8000 BC and as recent as the second world war have been found in varying conditions; from mere skeletons to fully fleshed. Unlike normal circumstances, with bog bodies it’s the skin and internal organs that survive best while the bones are generally in worse condition; this is due to the acid in peat dissolving the calcium phosphate of bone. These conditions have the opposite effect on the rest of the body however, since low oxygen and cold temperatures are the opposite of what bacteria needs to begin decomposition – the process is somewhat similar to that of pickling fruits and vegetables to preserve them. The one downside is that the skin becomes severely discoloured, becoming as dark as the bog itself. When the bodies are exposed to any of the usual earthly elements like oxygen, they rapidly decompose. For this very reason, many bog bodies have not survived after their discovery.
The oldest bog bodies have been found in Denmark, dating from as far back as 8000 BC (the title of the oldest fleshed bog body in the world belongs to Ireland’s Cashel Man). Because there are so many in such a small region, and because analysis revealed that they all seemed to have had injuries inflicted on them, it is thought that they were the victims of a large scale battle; possibly when new settlers wanted to introduce the agrarian lifestyle to reluctant older settlers. The majority of bog bodies discovered to date (the exact figure is unknown but there at least several hundred in total) date from the Iron Age and come from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The vast majority of them appear to have met their ends in similar fashions – through deliberate injuries, hanging or even decapitation. This has lead many historians to suggest that they were either sentenced to death for committing some sort of crime or were victims of ritual human sacrifice common in paganism and closely associated with kingship.
Ireland’s bog bodies
A total of 17 bog bodies have been found so far in Ireland; 9 men, 1 child of undetermined gender and 7 women. Many were skeletonised and some deteriorated soon after discovery and no longer exist. A small number had been buried formally, but most bore all the hallmarks of ritual sacrifice described above. Except for the child, all were estimated to be in their late teens or twenties at the time of their death, which is not all that surprising considering that the life expectancy of ancient people would have been much, much shorter than today. Some of the bodies were seemingly high ranking members of society, and may have been sacrificed because of poor harvests, lost battles and the like. The best preserved and most well known bodies include:
Cashel Man: The Cashel man is the oldest fleshed bog body in the world, dating from around 2000 BC. He was discovered in 2011 by a Bord na Mona employee in county Laois. He was buried in a crouched position with his knees against his chest and his armed wrapped around them. He had a broken arm, a wound on his back and a spine broken in two places. The body was damaged by the peat cutting machine that was operating in the bog, which severed the skull and left arm. Initially thought to have been lost, they were later found nearby. The man was between 20 and 25 years old when he died, and may have been a former king who fell from grace. He was buried near a hill that may have been used for kingship initiation, and was accompanied by wooden stakes (a common feature in ritualistic sacrifices).
Clonycavan Man: The Clonycavan man was discovered in 2003 in the same bog as the Old Croghan Man. The body dates from around 392 – 201 BC and is thought to be another ritual sacrifice. The man was killed by two forceful blows to the face and head, and deep wounds were also inflicted under each nipple. An examination of his stomach found that he had a diet of vegetables and protein, suggesting that he was killed during the summer months. The lower torso was never found, and it is not known if it was damaged by a peat cutting machine or if this was also some element of his death. The most interesting feature about him however is his hair; it was found to be coated with plant oil and pine resin from western Europe, suggesting that he was a wealthy man that had interacted with continental neighbours. It was also tied up at the top of his head, which may have been an attempt to make him appear taller as he was only 5’2”!
Old Croghan Man: The Old Croghan was found in the same area as the Clonycavan Man, and dates from some time between 362 and 175 BC. He was found at the foot of an ancient hill once used for kingship rituals. This and the fact that he had manicured fingernails and a meat rich diet leads experts to believe that he was a very wealthy man, likely a king. He also had a leather band around his arm which may have been a further indication of high status. He was decapitated and his body cut in half, although this probably happened after death – a stab wound to the chest is most likely what killed him. He stood at 6’6” tall, which would have been very rare for prehistoric standards, and was in his early twenties at the time of his death, and marks on his lungs suggest he may have suffered from pleurisy.
Stoneyisland Man: The Stoneyisland man holds the title of Ireland’s oldest bog body, although it is just a skeleton rather than a fully fleshed body like the Cashel Man. Discovered in 1929, it was initially thought to be the body of a man missing at the time, but on closer investigation it was found to be over 5,000 years old – the body dates from 3320 – 3220 BC! The skeleton was found lying flat with outstretched at right angles. As there was no damage inflicted, it is thought he drowned in the lake that would have existed before the bog and subsequently became covered by the bog as it built up around him. The peat cutters who discovered the body claim to have come across a dugout canoe some distance above the body, further supporting this theory. He was thought to be around forty years of age at the time of death, which would have been quite old at that time, and measured 5’2” in height.