Digging up the past

Often derided as evidence of a backward nation, Ireland’s bogs reveal instead that our ancient ancestors were a sophisticated people rich in culture — albeit with a taste for savage ritual killings. Dan Buckley goes back in time

A WEEK may be long time in politics, but it is barely the blink of an eye in archaeology. Less than three weeks ago — just in time for Irish Heritage Week — a body was unearthed from the murky depths of an Irish bog. It was spotted by a sharp-eyed worker in Cul na Móna bog near Portlaoise and is being excavated by archaeologists from the National Museum of Ireland.

The man leading that examination is Ned Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the museum. His passion — apart from his family and his Connemara ponies — is to give a voice to Ireland’s ambassadors from the past while observing their humanity.

“We do not think of these bog bodies in the same way as we do axes or implements that are found,” he says. “You have to remembeer that these are individuals and it is absolutely essential to deal with their remains in a dignified manner. There would be no justification in taking these bodies unless we do so with respect and with the serious intent to tell their stories on their behalf.”

It is hoped that this latest find will reveal as much information as the discoveries of Iron Age bog bodies at Oldcroghan, Co Offaly, and Clonycavan, Co Meath, in 2003.

Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man now form the centrepiece of Kingship and Sacrifice, a new exhibition which has just opened at the National Museum.

The location of the latest find at first suggested a different origin. “When reports of the bog body first came in, the first thing I thought of was that this must have been one of the English soldiers killed in the Battle of the Pass of the Plumes,” says Kelly. “That took place on May 17, 1599, between an Irish army led by Owny MacRory O’Moore and the Earl of Essex.

“He was the commander of Queen Elizabeth’s forces and was on an expedition southwards through Leinster to subdue the Munster Geraldines.

On the way he intended to relieve the garrison in Maryborough (now Portlaoise). The name comes from the number of plumes on the English helmets found later on the battlefield.”

However, the moment Kelly saw it, he realised the body was of far older vintage, at least 2,000 years old. “I am quite convinced we are dealing with an Iron Age male, one who was subjected to a ritual killing. There are cuts and marks on the body that indicate that this is somebody who was done to death.”

They could also indicate that the victim was a king or noble, as in the case of the discoveries of Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, both of whom met a brutal end.

Irish legends celebrate the Celts as inhabiting a mystical world ruled by warrior kings. Their oral tales were written down by medieval Christian monks, but while those manuscripts tell of heroic struggles, the bodies tell a darker tale of human sacrifice.

“The killings tend to be excessive,” explains Kelly, “in that more is done to the bodies than would be required to bring about their deaths. Bog bodies may have their throats cut, been stabbed in the heart and have other cut marks. However, it is absolutely not torture, but a form of ritual sacrifice.”

Ritual dictated the lives of kings in ancient Ireland as well as the manner of their deaths. “The king had great power but also great responsibility to ensure the prosperity of his people. Through his marriage on his inauguration to the goddess of the land, he was meant to guarantee her benevolence. He had to ensure the land was productive, so if the weather turned bad, or there was plague, cattle disease or losses in war, he was held personally responsible.”

At 6’6”, Old Croghan Man, who died between 362 BC and 175 BC, would have been considered a giant. He enjoyed a meat rich diet and had well manicured hands, suggesting that he was wealthy and not used to manual labour.

Clonycavan Man, in contrast, was little more than 5 ft and forensic evidence suggests he was a bit of a dandy, spiking his hair with pine resin, an early form of hair gel that would do justice to the pop duo Jedward. The gel tells as much as the body itself as the trees from which the resin was sourced only grew in Spain and south-west France, indicating the presence of long distance trade routes between Ireland and the Continent in Celtic times.

Both men had been subjected to gruesome deaths, indicating ritual killings. Old Croghan Man had holes cut in his upper arms through which a rope of hazel withies was threaded in order to restrain him. He was then stabbed and he had his nipples sliced, before finally being cut in half.

Clonycavan Man had been disembowelled and struck three times across the head with an axe and once across the body. This brutality is not confined to Irish bog bodies and has been paralleled on human remains from British and continental bogs.

Kelly believes that both men were failed kings or failed candidates for kingship who were killed and placed in bogs that formed important tribal boundaries. Cutting the nipples was more than simply a brutal act. It’s purpose was to dethrone the king. “Sucking a king’s nipples was a gesture of submission in ancient Ireland,” says Kelly. “Cutting them would have made him incapable of kingship in this world or the next.”

The bodies served as offerings to the goddess of the land. According to Kelly, the multiple injuries may reflect the belief that the goddess was not only one of the land and fertility, but also of sovereignty, war, and death.

“By using a range of methods to kill the victim, the ancient Irish sacrificed to the goddess in all her forms. This manner of death is peculiar to the ritual killing of kings. It means that a king was being decommissioned.”

It is also significant that these ritual killings occurred on the boundaries of ancient kingdoms. “One thing I think we can demonstrate is that some of these boundaries go back to the early Bronze Age, maybe even earlier. These are places apart inhabited by spirits; if you like, a gateway to the other world.”

They also suggest an unbroken line stretching back through the mists of time between the siting of megalithic tombs and Medieval royal centres.

“The ritual of the inauguration of kings may, in fact, have been as ancient as the monuments on which they were performed. There is little doubt but that the people of this island, going right back to the Neolithic period were very sophisticated.”

Like the 2003 discoveries, the latest find came about accidentally. Unearthed in the Cul na Móna bog between Abbeyleix and Portlaoise, it was discovered by Jason Phelan, an employee operating a milling machine.

“We are totally dependent on (the) goodwill and intelligence and savvy of those working on peat bogs to understand quickly what they are dealing with and to take appropriate action. Bord na Mona deserve a lot of praise. Jason is a very bright young man and he spotted straight away what he was dealing with. He and his co workers have taken a keen interest in this find.”

Born in the Dublin mountains, Kelly loves his work so much that he commutes twice a week to his office in Kildare Street from his farm in Connemara, where his wife and four children, aged four to 14, live.

“It is a long commute but it is worth it. We have a farm outside Carna and we breed Connemara ponies there. I am not sure whether any of my children would ever want to follow in my footsteps. I don’t really mind what they do but I would like them to find out what interests them and to find fulfilment in it.”

That is what he himself has done since he joined the National Museum in 1975. “I still get a great buzz out of it and I love doing the research.”

Kelly shows not just a scholarly interest in the bog bodies but a reverence for their humanity, even in their gnarled, blackened repose.

“I think it is important we treat them with respect. They have come down to us with a story to tell and it is our duty to tell that story on their behalf. If we do that, it will give added meaning to their lives.”

And, perhaps, to our lives as well.

For information on Kingship and Sacrifice and other exhibitions, go online to www.museum.ie

Discoveries that dispel Irish myths

ON July 20, 2006, Eddie Fogarty was cutting peat with a mechanical digger at Faddan More in north Tipperary when he spotted something unusual that looked “like some sort of book”.

He immediately contacted the bog owners, Kevin and Patrick Leonard, who, being aware of the possible significance of the find, gathered together the fragments and covered them with wet peat before notifying staff at the National Museum of Ireland.

The find — which has become known as the Faddan More Psalter — turned out to be part of an illuminated vellum manuscript encased in an unusual leather binding, a book of psalms dating back to the late 8th century.

The day when the museum took possession of the book would be heralded by its director Dr Pat Wallace as “the most important day in the history of the museum since 1868 when the Ardagh Chalice came in” and “more important for Ireland than the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls”.

Dr Wallace could hardly contain his excitement at the discovery: “It is not so much the fragments themselves, but what they represent, that is of such staggering importance. In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the early Christian civilisation of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland.”

Containing fragments of Egyptian papyrus in the leather cover, it is, according to the National Museum “a finding that asks many questions and has confounded some of the accepted theories about the history of early Christianity in Ireland”.

For Raghnall Ó Floinn, head of collections at the museum, it represents one of the top 10 archaeo-logical discoveries in Ireland and has changed our views about how ancient Irish manuscripts were produced.

It was the first manuscript to be found in a water-logged state in a bog and its discovery posed unprecedented difficulties for the conservation department of the museum.

Senior conservator John Gillis described how he was “transfixed with fear” when he had to restore the delicate document. He said it was “the first early medieval manuscript to come to light in 200 years anywhere in Europe”.

Four years of careful toil produced a miracle of resurrection and unearthed the real treasure of the book — not just its content but its context. Its historical significance may be huge, as the papyrus cover could be evidence of the first tangible connection between early Irish Christianity and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in Egypt.

The Faddan More Psalter is on display in the Nat-ional Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin.

Book of Kells

Described as the zenith of Western calligraphy and illumination, it was once ripped from its gold- and jewel-encrusted covers, with the result that some pages at the front and back are missing.

The book (right) dates from around 800AD, and the Annals of the Four Masters tell us that the act of vandalism occurred in 1006 when it was “wickedly stolen” from the great stone church at Kells on account of its valuable casing. The damaged manuscript turned up a few months later “under a sod”.

Book of Lismore

The Book of Lismore (left) is an Irish vellum manuscript, compiled in the early 15th century. Its original name was Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh (Book of Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach).

It was commissioned by Finghin MacCarthy Reagh, 8th Prince of Carbery and his wife Lady Catherine, daughter of Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Desmond.

It was compiled from the early and lost Book of Monasterboice, and other manuscripts. Part of the book makes reference to the lives of Irish saints and contains Acallam na Senórach, a Middle-Irish narrative pertaining to the Fenian Cycle.

The book also contains Leabhar Ser Marco Polo, an Irish translation of the Book of Sir Marco Polo, indicating that, far from being isolated, Ireland engaged with mainstream European thought and literature.

Life after death

THE word “mummy” conjures up images of linen-wrapped royalty from ancient Egypt. But for scientists it describes any body that retains soft tissue including skin, eyes and internal organs long after death.

Peat bogs in Europe made mummies, and the key to the remarkable preservation of bog bodies was the absence of bacteria and fungi, nature’s agents of decay, due to the acidic, oxygen-free nature of bogs.

Egypt Centuries before the art of embalming was developed in Egypt, bodies were naturally mummified in pits dug into the dry and arid desert sands.

Later royal mummies were prepared for eternal life through an elaborate process called “classic mummification”.

It involved the removal of all internal organs other than the heart, which Egyptians believed was the source of intelligence. Embalmers then cleansed the body with wine, dried it for 40 days, made it supple with oils, and wrapped it in resin-coated linen bandages, which protected it from oxygen, microbes, and moisture.

Lady Dai

She’s been called the best-preserved mummy in the world. When unearthed in 1971, her body was still supple, and her veins contained type-A blood. Like a Russian doll, her coffin lay nested in a series of six caskets, and the entire burial chamber, with over 1,000 Han Dynasty artifacts, was encased in charcoal and clay 50 feet underground.

Lady Dai (below) was a Chinese nobleman’s wife in her mid-50s when she died of a heart attack. Although she left behind one of the most perfectly preserved bodies in history, she hadn’t lived the healthiest life.

She was overweight, had diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease, gallstones and her arteries were almost totally clogged.

Picture: Ned Kelly examines the bog body at Cul na Móna bog. Picture: Andrew Downes

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