Irish archaeologists have unearthed a 1,600-year-old wooden pagan idol from a bog in Co Roscommon.
The artefact was retrieved from a bog in Gortnacrannagh, around six kilometres from the prehistoric royal site of Rathcroghan.
The idol was made during the Iron Age from a split trunk of an oak tree, with a small human-shaped head at one end and several horizontal notches carved along its body.
Only a dozen such idols have been found in Ireland and at more than two and a half metres, the Gortnacrannagh Idol is the largest to date.
The wooden carving was discovered by a team from the Archaeological Management Solutions (AMS), working in advance of the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge Road Project.
Dr Eve Campbell, director of the AMS excavation site said the idol was carved just over 100 years before St Patrick came to Ireland.
"It is likely to be the image of a pagan deity," Dr Campbell said.
"Our ancestors saw wetlands as mystical places where they could connect with their gods and the Otherworld.
"The discovery of animal bone alongside a ritual dagger suggests that animal sacrifice was carried out at the site and the idol is likely to have been part of these ceremonies.”
Wooden idols are known from bogs across northern Europe where waterlogged conditions allow for the preservation of ancient wood.
“The lower ends of several figures were also worked to a point suggesting that they may once have stood upright," said wood specialist, Cathy Moore.
"Their meaning is open to interpretation, but they may have marked special places in the landscape, have represented particular individuals or deities or perhaps have functioned as wooden bog bodies, sacrificed in lieu of humans.”
The Gortnacrannagh Idol is currently at University College Dublin (UCD), where conservator Susannah Kelly is undertaking the three-year process of preserving the artefact.
Once conserved the idol will go on display at the National Museum of Ireland.
A replica of the idol, made by AMS staff in collaboration with members of the UCC Pallasboy Project and the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture, will go on display at the Rathcroghan Centre in Tulsk, Co Roscommon.
Dr Ros Ó Maoldúin of AMS says the Gortnacrannagh Idol is such "a unique and significant find", and the replica will "help us understand the idol better and appreciate how it was made.
"It will be possible for people to see this in action at the Craggaunowen Archaeology Park in Co. Clare during the last weekend of August.”
AMS says the discovery will have no impact on the progress of the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge Road Project.
“Road projects such as the N5 provide a significant opportunity for the investigation of our archaeological heritage, said Deirdre McCarthy, resident archaeologist with Roscommon County Council.
"Gortnacrannagh is an excellent example. Were it not for the road, we would never have known about this extraordinary site.”
Analysis of the artefact and the site it was found in is ongoing.