Bog Bodies: Ireland

Bog Bodies: Ireland

I was enthralled with everything in Ireland, including the details on buildings.
National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology
February 27, 2016

There are so many things I want to share about my visit to Ireland, and I’ve had a real difficult time knowing where to begin.
I’ve decided to start with some slightly macabre history that I find truly fascinating.
Bog Bodies.
It was something my friend Becky really wanted to see during our visit in Dublin.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

I have such a morbid fascination with death and rituals.
I was beyond intrigued as we entered the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibit.
I found myself staring at the grotesque remains of someone who once lived.

in a darker world perhaps
with misunderstandings
about life
about death
what was this person’s life like?
when you stare death in the face
is there a fear?
or an understanding?
isn’t the actual reason we have traditions and rituals because we don’t understand death?

In awe and wonder I silently observed the past.

Irish Wetlands and their Archaeology

In Ireland, archaeological finds from wetlands occur most commonly in or under peat bogs and by the marshy sides of rivers and lakes. At the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, melting glaciers left central Ireland dotted with shallow lakes. Floating plant communities developed in these and the lake edges were abundant with sedges and tall reeds. Over time the vegetation died and fell into the water, forming peat on the lake bed. As peat levels increased towards the water surface the sedges and reeds extended into the lakes, creating fen bogs. Further peat growth meant that the surface plants lost contact with the mineral rich ground water, resulting in the invasion of Bog Moss (Sphagnum), a plant suited to a poor mineral habitat. The Sphagnum acts like a sponge by drawing up water and it keeps the bog surface waterlogged. Raised bogs are then formed – so called because they have grown up above the general level of the surrounding countryside.

One such raised bog, Boora Bog, Co. Offaly developed in this manner. As it grew it extended beyond the shores of the ancient Lough Boora where a Mesolithic community had camped to fish and hunt wildfowl. Typical stone tools of the period were found when the bog was removed in peat harvesting. About 4,000 years ago the Irish climate became wetter. Especially in the west of Ireland and on higher ground, this led to the formation of blanket bogs. Minerals such as iron were washed out from the surface soil layers by high rainfall thus forming blanket bogs. In a number of places, farmland associated with Neolithic communities together with field boundaries, tombs and settlements became buried beneath blanket bogs.

Bogs formed major barriers to land communications and from the Bronze Age onwards bog roads were constructed to cross them. Known as toghers, these roads were made from brushwood, wattle, planks, gravel and stone (or combinations of these). As the peat grew the toghers became buried and preserved. Very often sequences of toghers built at different times are found to occur. Toghers and objects lost by people using them are among the commonest archaeological finds from bogs. Another common find is bog butter which is butter placed in a bog (probably for storage purposes) and not retrieved by the owner. The butter is often found in a container such as a wooden vessel, a basket or animal hide. Human remains are also found together with clothing. Such remains may be of persons who died as a result of falling into bog holes but some are deliberate burials. In the case of an Iron age find from Gallagh, Co. Galway, the remains are those of a young man who appears to have been ritually murdered.

European Bog Bodies

Over the last few centuries, peat cutters have uncovered a large number of bodies in the bogs of Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain. Those that date to the Iron Age represent ritual killings and therefore demonstrate that the Irish finds are but part of a broader North Western European cultural tradition. Both male and female bodies occur of people who were killed in the period 400 BC – 400 AD. All were put to death in brutal fashion using a variety of means including hanging, strangling, stabbing, throat cutting, battery with a blunt instrument and hacking with an axe or sword. There is also evidence of drowning, decapitation, dismemberment and disembowelment.

Tollund Man is the best known of the Danish bog bodies. His remarkably preserved face has a peaceful expression that belies the fact that he died violently, strangled by a plaited noose. A large wound on the front of the neck of Grauballe Man, Denmark, shows that his throat was cut from ear to ear. The body was well preserved and examination of his hands showed no sign of hard manual labour. Huldremose Woman, Denmark, was an adult whose arms and legs showed signs of repeated hacking. Her right arm was severed. A young female known as Yde Girl, Holland, appears to have been strangled and stabbed at the age of sixteen. At Osterby, Germany, a severed head was found wrapped in a deerskin cape. It is that of a man who may have been killed by a blow to his left temple before he was decapitated. The hair is tied in an elaborate hairstyle in the manner of the Suebi tribe, as described by the contemporary Roman historian Tacitus. Lindow Man, England, was also struck on the head, in addition to having his throat cut and being throttled with a rope made of animal sinew. Aged in his twenties, he wore a beard and moustache and had well-manicured fingernails. In common with other bog bodies, Lindow Man consumed a cereal-based gruel as his final meal.

Gallagh Man

County Galway
Early Iron Age 400-200 BC

Gallagh Man is an adult male whose preserved remains were discovered at a depth of 2.9m in a bog during a peat cutting in 1821. Although well preserved when discovered the remains have become desiccated over the years since their discovery and the hair and stubbly beard have largely disappeared. The body was naked except for a deerskin cape that extended to the knees. The cape was tied at the neck with a band of willow rods that may have been a garrotte used to strangle him. The body lay on its left side, slightly flexed at the waist and knees. A pointed wooden post or stake stood obliquely at either side of the body. A depression on the right thigh probably preserves the position of one of these posts. The bog where the body was found is on the boundary of the ancient kingdom of Ui Mhaine.


Oldcroghan Man

County Offaly
Early Iron Age 362-175 BC

Oldcroghan Man was over 25 years of age at the time of his death. He was a tall powerfully built man whose height is estimated at about 6 feet 3 ½ inches (1.91m). Uncovered in May 2003 during the digging of a bog drain along a parish boundary, the remains consist of a severed torso that had been decapitated. However, the surviving part of the body is in remarkable condition with superbly preserved hands and intact internal organs. On the upper left arm is a plaited leather armband with metal mounts bearing Celtic ornament. A scientific technique involving analysis of his fingernails indicated that Oldcroghan Man ate a diet with a substantial meat component during the four months prior to his death, which may suggest that he died early in the year before plant-based foods became plentiful. Analysis of the stomach contents revealed that he had eaten a final meal of cereals and buttermilk, in contrast to his regular meat-rich diet.

A stab wound to his chest killed Oldcroghan Man. However, a defence-wound on one arm indicates that he tried to fend off the fatal assault. Although the precise sequence cannot be determined the deceased was decapitated, had his nipples cut and his thorax severed from his abdomen. The cutting of the nipples is highly significant. Sucking a king’s nipples was an ancient Irish form of submission and the mutilation perpetrated on Oldcroghan Man would have rendered him ineligible for kingship. Carefully manicured fingernails and an absence of wear to his hands indicating that he did not engage in heavy manual work, demonstrate that Oldcroghan Man was a person of high social rank. Twisted hazel ropes known as withies were inserted through cuts made in the upper arms and may have been employed to fasten down the body to the bottom of a bog pool. However, the use of withies may also have involved a protective taboo safeguarding the boundary. The parish boundary on which the body was found is at that point co-extensive with the boundary of two ancient territories (Tuath Cruachain and Tuath na Cille) ruled by minor kings and is close to Croghan Hill where the over-kings of Ui Failge were inaugurated.


Clonycavan Man

County Meath
Early Iron Age 392-201 BC

In February 2003 workers at a peat extraction works in Ballivor, Co. Meath, discovered the preserved body of a man in a peat-screening machine. Investigation indicated that he had lain originally in a deep bog at Clonycavan on the Meath county border with Westmeath. Although damaged from the waist down due to the action of a peat-harvesting machine, the internal organs were preserved partially and the head was intact with a clearly distinguishable face. Hair on the chin and upper lip suggested the former presence of a moustache and goatee beard. Clonycavan Man had a very distinctive hairstyle. On the back of the head the hair was cut to about 2.5cm long with the rest of the hair, which was about 20cm long, gathered into a bundle on the top of his head. Clonycavan Man, who was over 25 years of age at the time of his death, was of slight build and was estimated to be no more than about 5 feet 9 inches (1.76m) tall.

A scientific technique involving analysis of his hair indicated that for four months prior to his death Clonycavan Man had a plant-based diet suggesting that he may have died in the autumn before the onset of a meat-rich winter diet. He was killed by a series of blows to his head, probably from an axe. He also suffered a 40cm long cut to his abdomen suggesting disembowelment. The body was naked when found.

The extraordinary hairstyle of Clonycavan Man was held in place by the application of a sort of hair gel made from resin imported from France or Spain. This suggests that he was a high status person who commanded the resources necessary to obtain exotic foreign imports. The bog where the body was found lies on the boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Brega and Mide.



Baronstown West Man

County Kildare
Early Iron Age 200-400 AD

Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953 having lain at a depth of at least 1.9m in the bog. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks overlay the remains, which were those of a male aged between 25 and 30 years. A bundle of sticks tied with a withy overlay the left shin. A woolen textile joined along the back of the body with wooden pegs extended to the feet in the manner of a shroud. Outside the textile there was a semi-circular leather cloak.

The body was not well preserved. It was found at the southern edge of a bog along which three separate deposits of bog butter were also found, one of which (from Rosberry – on display elsewhere in the exhibition) has been dated to the Early Iron Age between 400-350 BC. This edge of the bog lies in proximity to the boundary between the barony of Connell and that of Offaly West, which was the ancient boundary of the kingdom of Ui Failge. The Hill of Allen, associated with the legendary hero Fionn MacCumhaill, overlooks the bog to the west.


The ritual killing of human beings whose remains were then deposited in bogs is a practice known not only from Ireland but also from Britain and parts of northern Europe. Current research suggests that the practice in Ireland was related to kingship and sovereignty rituals. The inauguration of a king symbolised his marriage to the territorial earth goddess and offerings were made to deities, both male and female to ensure a successful kingship. In addition to human sacrifice, objects associated with inauguration rites were deposited ritually, including garments and regalia, weapons, feasting equipment, horse harness, yokes and parts of wheeled vehicles. Offerings such as butter, quern stones, plough parts and sickles demonstrate that the fertility of the land was closely linked to concepts of kingship and sovereignty. The distribution of votive offerings suggests that they were deposited in proximity to tribal boundaries so as to express the king’s sovereignty and define it.

All information was gathered from signage at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology.

All photos were taken by me or Nathan.