Irish bog bodies help unlock secrets of Iron Age
By Kevin Smith
DUBLIN (Reuters) – Life in the Iron Age may have been
nasty, brutish and short but people still found time to style
their hair and polish their fingernails — and that was just
These are the findings of scientists who have been
examining the latest preserved prehistoric bodies to emerge
from Ireland’s peat bogs — the first to be found in Europe for
One of the bodies, churned up by a peat-cutting machine at
Clonycavan near Dublin in 2003, had raised Mohawk-style hair,
held in place with gel imported from abroad.
The other, unearthed three months later and 40 km (25
miles) away in Oldcroghan by workmen digging a ditch, had
perfectly manicured fingernails.
“I think the message I’m getting is that although they were
living in a different time, a different culture, eating
different things, living in a different way, people are people
– they’re the same in their thinking,” said Rolly Read, head
of conservation at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
Read is one of a team of experts from Britain and Ireland
who carried out an 18-month examination of the 2,300-year-old
corpses and whose findings form the basis of “Kingship &
Sacrifice,” a major new exhibition at the museum.
MYSTERY OF GRUESOME DEATHS
While the last two centuries have seen hundreds of bog
bodies recovered from northern Europe’s wetlands — where they
were preserved by the unique chemical composition of the peat
– many were not examined in detail because techniques to
further preserve them had not been perfected.
Read said the latest finds had yielded precious insights
into Iron Age life.
For example, the hair product used by Clonycavan Man was a
gel made of plant oil and pine resin imported from southwestern
France or Spain, showing trade between Ireland and southern
Europe was taking place almost two-and-a-half millennia ago.
“We’ve been able to apply techniques that weren’t available
back in 1984 so it’s a chance to actually look at aspects of
Iron Age people that haven’t been explored before,” Read said.
Archaeologists have always puzzled over why the bodies
ended up in peat bogs and why so many of them show signs of
violent death, with much debate about whether they were
executed for crimes or ritually slain as human sacrifices.
Both Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man — who were in their
20s when they died — met grisly ends, the latter in particular
bearing the scars of horrific torture, including having his
nipples cut almost through.
Like several other bog bodies, Oldcroghan Man had been
beheaded. Other examples, such as Denmark’s famous Tollund Man,
discovered in 1950, still had the rope used to strangle them
around their necks.
Manicured fingernails and evidence of good diet — not to
mention Clonycavan Man’s taste for imported cosmetics — seem
to indicate that many of those who ended up in the bogs were
from the upper classes.
APPEASING THE FERTILITY GODS
Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National
Museum of Ireland, has developed a new theory about the bodies
based on his discovery that nearly all of the Irish examples
were placed in the borders immediately surrounding royal land
or on tribal boundaries.
“These people may have been hostages or deposed kings or
candidates for kingship who have been sacrificed to ensure a
successful reign for a new king and this was done as part of a
kingship ritual and as a fertility offering to the gods,” he
“The king was held personally responsible for the success
of the crops and so on — if he couldn’t guarantee the
fertility of the land he risked being deposed,” he added.
Another theory, prompted by the writings of Roman historian
Tacitus from around the same era, is that the perpetrators of
“shameful crimes” were put into the bog in order to trap their
souls in a watery limbo where the body did not rot.
The Kingship & Sacrifice exhibition includes Iron Age
artifacts such as weapons, feasting utensils, boundary markings
and kingly regalia — all of which are often tied in with bog
burials in a number of locations, according to Kelly.
The two most recent bodies — tanned to a mahogany sheen by
acids in the bog water — have now been freeze-dried for long
term preservation and have found their final resting place
under glass in Ireland’s national museum.