Time erodes all things, shifting our surroundings day by day, inch by inch until the outside world is unrecognisable to parents, or grandparents, or ancestors long gone. It is a perversion of the natural order to resist decay, and preserve memory. Yet a select few, lying under the cool sphagnum moss of Ireland’s quiet peat lands, defy this rule and carry a lost, violent world into our present.
The bog bodies are a collection of over a hundred men, women and children unearthed over the years from Ireland’s bogs. Most were accidental additions — drowning victims, or informal burials. Archaeologists, however, soon began to uncover a pattern in some of these bodies, of excessive injury and trauma. Beyond their remarkable preservation and archaeological appeal, these bodies have become Ireland’s oldest, and yet unsolved murder cases.
All across Northern Europe, some 2500 years ago in the Iron Age, tortured people were thrown into the cool, wet abyss of bogs — but not to rot. Whether intentional or not, these bodies would not decay in their graves. Bogs are filled with waterlogged sphagnum moss. No drainage means no oxygen, so plants decay so slowly that dead matter accumulates into layers which gradually compress to form peat. If a body is buried deep enough in this cold, oxygen-free morass, microbes can’t break it down. Sphagnum moss also produces tannic acid, which turned the skin of these people into leather, preserving even the meals within their stomachs.
When thousands of years later, these bodies came to light after being unearthed by unsuspecting peat workers and farmers, they were thought to be recent homicides. They would be forgiven for thinking they were recent deaths — Tollund Man, from the Netherlands, lived 300 years before Julius Caesar, and still has the stubble on his chin, and the deep furrows on his forehead.
Each bog body died after sustaining enough injuries to kill a person three times over. Old Croghan Man, who stood at six foot six inches, was killed with a stab wound to the chest, then dismembered and beheaded. Clonycavan man was disembowelled and his head was smashed in. Both these men’s nipples were also severed. The overkill, the strange clothes and accessories they wore, the lacing of hazel and leather throughout their bodies, all point to ritual sacrifice. At the time these people were killed, there was no writing system, nor any real permanent recordings of how they lived. Their lives, their hair, the way they dressed and their painful ends would have been lost to the world, were it not for the strange nature of the bog.
So who were these victims, and who were there murderers? These answers are pieced together a combination of guesswork, forensics, and a patchwork of techniques in archaeological science. Isabella Mulhall, the co-ordinator of the National Museum of Ireland’s Bog Body Research Project, says that performing radiocarbon dating on the body is one of the first steps. From there, every detail of the remains are examined. Everything, from the leather armbands, to the ropes they were tied with, to the hair gel and hairstyles they wore, are clues to their existence.“[Combining] the information we have gleaned from the remains gives a comprehensive overall view of the life and death of these individuals.” Sequencing of DNA is perhaps the most difficult task—the acid that can tan the skin so perfectly comes at the cost of destroying its DNA.
“Stomach contents can yield remarkable insights into the foods they consumed prior to their death. Also, paleodietary analysis of hair and nails can provide a lot of clues regarding the diet of the individual”. Mass spectrometry of hair samples shows the amount of elements like iron or calcium in the body, key clues to their nutrition. Unlike other European bog bodies, who were often disabled people, the sacrificed bodies in Ireland’s bogs were all men, apparently well nourished and cushioned in life. Old Croghan man’s last meal was cereals and buttermilk, but before that his diet was rich in meat. Their hands are free of calluses, indicating a lifetime free of manual labour. Even with X-rays, spectrometry, the astute eyes of forensic experts and all these scientific advances, we can answer when they died, and how, but not why they did any of these things.
Iron Age Ireland is somewhat of a mystery. It spans about a millennia, and we know lands were split up into kingdoms, with some trading with other realms in the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe. They didn’t leave much behind, other than some ornate ornaments, and the bodies.
Without solid records, the motive of these sacrifices will stay conjecture. What we do know is that this brutal ritual has a long history. Cashel Man, only unearthed in 2011, was sacrificed after his back was sliced open and his arm broken in self-defence. But unlike his Iron Age counterparts, he is over four thousand years old — an inhabitant of pre-Celtic Ireland. It seems incredulous that a 2000 year long practice was never recorded by the many generations it encompassed. There is one explanation, however, that grips the imagination.
Given their unworked hands, and burials near the boundaries of Iron Age kingdoms, Eamonn Kelly, an archaeologist for the National Museum of Ireland, says they may have been failed kings. As the consort between men and the goddess of the land, it was a king’s duty to remain in her favour. If his people suffered poor harvests and hardships, he had failed, and must appease her. A goddess who could encompass land and fertility, but also death and war, would only be satisfied with excessive violence. Hence, sacrificing a king to restore her benevolence. Nipples were symbols of kingship, recorded in art dating as far back as the Bronze Age. Slicing them off would have symbolised their fall from power.
The whys of the bog bodies will probably never be fully answered. Peat bogs are being left to rest, after a long history of milling and digging. Celtic Ireland is clouded by colourful imagery of mystical maidens and proud warriors. But these people from millennia ago aren’t stories, they’re as real as the curled hand of Old Croghan Man, so fresh it looks warm enough to grasp. When we walk over fields of cows or a muddy bog, history can seem like an old wives’ tale. The bodies remind us this is the same earth that was toiled by men in cloaks and gold torcs, the same earth of violence. This land is theirs as much as it is ours and the people who come after us.