Ireland’s Boundary Rituals and Iron Age Bog Bodies

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Clonycavan Man, one of Ireland's best preserved bog bodies. Image by Sven Shaw.

Clonycavan Man, one of Ireland’s best-preserved bog bodies. Image by Sven Shaw.

Recent interpretations of bodies and artifacts found in Ireland’s bogs show how rethinking ancient finds in context reveals unwritten history. Comparing these bodies and artifacts with both landscape and mythology in mind proves useful.

Scientists date bog bodies across a wide span of time, perhaps 5000 years from Neolithic to medieval eras. The number of bog bodies discovered in the British Isles has increased in the past decade. They join an increasing group of similar remains emerging from peat bogs across Europe.

Recent study focuses on nine Irish Iron Age bog bodies by asking how, when and why these young male victims came to be there – to find out, we seek answers in myth and folklore.

Iron Age Ireland

Ireland’s Iron Age lasted from around 500 BC until about 400 AD, and has left few remains where people constructed houses with mainly organic materials such as wood. Fortunately, archaeologists have found and dated well-preserved Irish bog men to the Iron Age in sufficient numbers to offer a great deal of information about life in that era.

These men were of similar age and apparently lived elite lifestyles; suggested for instance, by well-manicured fingernails and evidence of  a rich diet, but were ritually killed. Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, suggests that we can begin to interpret the reasons for their ritual demise. He argues that those who killed them placed the Iron Age mummies in very specific sites.

He connects these men with other finds such as ornaments, weapons and horse fittings; and suggests that these also were specifically deposited. Kelly’s theory is that they marked boundaries by their placement, or to retain established boundaries and that these are the remains of ritually sacrificed kings.

Ireland’s Peat Bog Mummies

The archaeological finds of the early twenty-first century have contributed a lot of new information. Two peat bog bodies were found in Ireland in 2003: Clonycavan Man was found at Bord na Móna Ballivor Works in County Meath and Oldcroghan Man was found in a privately owned bog in the townland of Oldcroghan in County Offaly. That is only twenty-five miles from the Clonycavan discovery.

This is a map of the baronies of County Offaly (then called King's County) in Ireland; Image from the Atlas and cyclopedia of Ireland, p.172, by Patrick Weston Joyce

This is a map of the baronies of County Offaly (then called King’s County) in Ireland; Image from the Atlas and cyclopedia of Ireland, p.172, by Patrick Weston Joyce

Archaeologists found three further historical bodies in peat contexts in Ireland in 2005 and 2006; Cashel Man surfaced in 2011 and proves the most interesting Irish bog body to date.

“Bog bodies are rare survivals from earlier times,” Eamonn Kelly says in “An Archaeological Interpretation of Irish Iron Age Bog Bodies.” “While many survive merely as skeletons, the preservative properties of bogs means that in exceptional cases the bodies are in spectacular condition with hair, skin, hands, internal organs, and other soft tissue preserved.”

The study of over one hundred Irish bog mummies ranging from Neolithic to early modern times includes the more recent examples. A large international team of experts have subjected them to forensic tests and various examinations as well as a facial reconstruction.

“Such discoveries make it possible literally to come face-to-face with a person who lived millennia ago and to view their features, see how they styled their hair, and wore their clothing,” Kelly continues. “It is also possible to find out what they ate; what diseases they may have suffered in life; and the manner of their deaths.”

Kingship and Baronial Boundaries

The Museum of Ireland’s expert reflections on what the findings signify include consideration of how the Iron Age bog bodies connect with images on objects depicting rituals that were found in other countries in addition to Irish mythology. Kelly has also studied their relationship to the landscape and how that functioned in local histories of kingship until quite recent times.

Baronies are historical county subdivisions, but sometimes coincide with modern county boundaries. Oldcroghan Man was found where a modern townland and parish boundary was once the territorial boundary between Tuath Cruacháin and Tuath na Cille (Tuath means ‘tribe.’) Kelly notes that Clonycavan Man was found where three baronies meet on the county border between Meath and Westmeath; the boundary also separated the ancient territories of Brega and Mide.

Archaeologists discovered two other Iron Age bodies close to barony boundaries, and one actually lay on on a boundary. Altogether Kelly believes that over forty Irish bog bodies were found on important boundaries, mainly of the barony type, and reminds us that bogs are boundaries.

Ireland’s Boundaries Marked by Ritual Deposits

Along with the bodies at boundaries, the significant finds range from brass ornaments and horse fittings through various weapons to gold torcs. It has been a long-held belief that people made such ritual deposits near water for religious reasons. Kelly’s suggestion is that water often forms important boundaries, and that the objects and the ritually sacrificed bodies are of political or civil rather than religious significance.

It is possible the wide range of objects found on historic boundaries could establish the antiquity of those boundaries, marking them further back into history than official records currently state. The finds go back at least to the Bronze Age, and also include Iron Age cauldrons, a bronze trumpet, a leather shield, and wooden swords.

In medieval times, after a king’s inauguration, his horse, harness, weapons, etc. were given to those close to him and the church. Kelly suggests that this ceremony could have pagan origins in a leader’s sacred marriage to the territorial earth goddess, where people buried objects from the inauguration on tribal borders – and that archaeologists may prove that this practice goes back into the Bronze Age.

Peat Bogs and Human Remains: Insight into the Past

The discoveries of human remains mummified by lying in peat bog-land for centuries sheds new light on the way of life and religious beliefs in prehistory. The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin created a permanent exhibition of finds associated with this theory of kingship and sacrifice, including the display of the somewhat gruesome remains of four Iron Age bog bodies.

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© Copyright 2014 Val Williamson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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