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Cover of British Archaeology 110

Issue 110

Jan / Feb 2010



Burnt mound theory tested to perfection

Dig find proves flowers placed in bronze age graves

UK's first complete Roman lantern found in Suffolk

Research continues as Saxon hoard is valued at £3.3m

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Newhenge: Latest discoveries and interpretations from the Stonehenge Riverside Project team

Dig the beat: Exploring pop music from an archaeological perspective, including additional online content

THE BIG DIG Mellor: A hillfort in the garden: This long-running research excavation near Stockport, Greater Manchester, is now ready for publication

The Peat Men from Clonycavan and Oldcroghan: Findings of the Bog Bodies Research Project at the National Museum of Ireland, with Bibliography


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at archaeological gifts

Dan Pett summarises the website set-up and technologies for the Staffordshire Hoard


faux pas


Sebastian Payne asks what cremation burials can tell us

in view

Greg Bailey is impressed by Open University broadcasting

CBA Correspondent

Lynne Walker and Sue Morecroft look at the past year of listed building casework

my archaeology

David Attenborough remembers the early days of television


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The Peat Men from Clonycavan and Oldcroghan

The unearthing of waterlogged soft tissue remains from bogs – or "bog mummies" – is a rare occurrence. The double find of exceptionally preserved bodies within three months in 2003 was unprecedented. Both were of adult males dating to the early iron age (the iron age in Ireland dates to around 500BC–AD400). The remains, which have become known as Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man, came to the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), the state repository for archaeological finds, shortly after their discovery in the Irish midlands.

The multi-disciplinary investigation that followed engaged personnel from the museum and specialists from six different countries, many of whom had vast experience in the field of bog body research. As the scope of the study widened, the core research team expanded accordingly, resulting in upwards of 40 international experts working on the project, a scale reminiscent of the investigation of Lindow Man in Britain in the 1980s (see feature, Jul/Aug 2009). Information was gleaned regarding age at death, stature, health and well-being, diet and the manner in which the men were subjected to ritualistic killings before their bodies were disposed of in bogs.

Highlights of the research were captured in an hour-long BBC Timewatch documentary screened in January 2006, generating huge international awareness. The project led to a new permanent exhibition in the NMI, Dublin, entitled Kingship and Sacrifice. The title arose from an interpretation by Eamonn P Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the museum, that the bodies were connected to sovereignty and kingship rituals [see end box]. The wider cultural context is explained in the exhibition through a range of other iron age votive bog finds, including weapons, horse-trappings, carved anthropomorphic wooden figures, bog butter and jewellery. The prehistoric human remains are placed in a broader north-western European context; as well as Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man, the display includes iron age bog bodies from Gallagh, Co Galway (around 400–200BC) and Baronstown West, Co Kildare (AD242–388). Parallels are drawn with other bog bodies from Britain (Lindow Man), Denmark (Tollund Man and Grauballe Man), the Netherlands (Yde Girl) and Germany (Osterby Man). The exhibition sheds light on Irish bog body discoveries that were, up to now, something of an enigma, and offers visitors an unparalleled opportunity to examine a heretofore under-explored side of the iron age in Ireland.

Study and conservation

Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man, both of which came from raised bogs, had survived through the millennia thanks to the preservative qualities of peat: its unique chemistry, which is unfavourable to biodeterioration, mummifies human remains. For the duration of the 18-month long investigation, the remains were kept in the museum's conservation laboratories in wet peat in refrigerated storage at 4ºc, an environment that closely recreated the wetland conditions in which they were found. They were handled as little as possible, only being removed from storage for a maximum working period of three hours at a time.

The highly detailed programme of investigation of the bodies went through four stages, commencing with a non-destructive physical examination. This involved anatomical and pathological assessments, fingerprinting, hairstyle analysis and detailed photography and illustration.

Following this was an "imaging phase", which included further detailed photography and illustration in addition to X-raying of the remains. The bodies were subjected to high-resolution computerised tomography (CT) scanning in association with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), both of which functioned as virtual autopsies providing images that were not possible using conventional radiography. This eliminated the need for invasive or destructive procedures, and served as an invaluable aid to the various specialists. The CT scans also allowed for 3d visualisation of body parts and, in the case of Clonycavan Man, provided valuable data which acilitated a reconstruction of his head. A further part of this phase involved observation of the skin surfaces under infrared and ultra-violet illumination to identify any pigment variations such as might result from the presence of tattoos: all that were revealed were two moles on Clonycavan Man.

This was followed by a minimally destructive "sampling phase", in which minute samples were taken of skin, bone, hair and tissue for a wide range of purposes including palaeodietary, dermatological, histological, pathological and DNA analyses. Four samples were taken from each body for radiocarbon dating, split between two laboratories as a control measure. Samples of skin and intestinal tissue were used to date Clonycavan Man, whilst in the case of Oldcroghan Man, internal connective tissue and fragments of a withy associated with the body were dated. Additional samples of tissue, bone, hair and skin were banked at intervals throughout the investigation for use by future researchers. This phase also included the removal of loose teeth from Clonycavan Man for dental analysis, in addition to the sampling of the gut contents of both individuals in an attempt to determine their last meals.

The final stage, and perhaps one of the most challenging of the scientific programme, was conservation. The bodies were firstly immersed in a water-soluble wax consolidant, polyethylene glycol (PEG), for four weeks before being freeze-dried for six weeks. This technique, also used in the conservation of Lindow Man, departed radically from much earlier techniques used to conserve bog bodies, such as smoking, used in Germany in 1871 for the remains from Rendswühren, or pittanning (immersion of the remains in a bath of oak bark extracts), practised in Denmark in the 1950s.

Clonycavan Man

Dating to 392–201bc, Clonycavan Man was slight in stature, measuring an estimated 5ft 5.5 inches (1.68m) in height (revising earlier estimates). The remains were discovered on February 21 2003 at the Bord na Móna (Irish Peat Board) Ballivor Works in Co Meath. They came to light in a screening machine, known as a "tramp screen", which removes large extraneous matter from the peat. Following standard procedures, the Bord na Móna archaeological liaison officer and archaeological consultants alerted the local Garda (police force) station, Dúchas – the Heritage Service (as it was then known) and the NMI. A precise find spot could not be determined, but it was possible to isolate the general area in the production field in which the body had been deposited. Although this area was systematically fieldwalked and examined, no further remains or associated artefacts were found

Clonycavan Man was between 25 and 40 years of age when he was ritually killed. Anatomical examination of the remains – which consist of a head, severed torso and the arms complete to the wrists – indicated that he would most likely have lain on his back with his head facing to the left. The lower half of the body and the hands, which were in all probability removed by a peat-cutting machine, were unfortunately not recovered. Despite the incomplete nature of the remains, they are nonetheless extremely well preserved with a clearly distinguishable face and partly preserved internal organs.

Clonyavan Man wore a moustache and a goatee beard, though both had been closely shaven. One of the most distinct features of this individual was his elaborate hairstyle. He had been shaven across his forehead from ear to ear giving him a conspicuously high hairline, and his hair had been cut to about 1cm in length at the nape of his neck and around his ears. With an average length of between 17 and 20cm, his remaining hair appeared to have been swept upwards and partly folded back over itself on top of the head, which would have served to increase his apparent height.

Chemical analysis revealed the presence of a conifer resin on the root ends. This had been mixed with some form of lipid, in all likelihood a vegetable oil, and it is probable that this substance would originally have held the hairstyle in place. Further analysis indicated that the resin can most likely be traced to Pinus pinaster, a tree that grows in south-west France or northern Spain. This "gel" was undoubtedly a highly exclusive and luxurious commodity, clearly not something available to all strata of society. Although reddish-brown in colour, the original colour of his hair could not be determined with certainty given the effects of the bog environment.

Palaeodietary analysis of a hair strand revealed high levels of hydrogen at the time of death, pointing to a plant-based diet and therefore making it likely that he met his demise in summer when plants were abundant. Attempts to identify Clonycavan Man's DNA profile proved unsuccessful, echoing the results of previous studies that have examined the survival of DNA in bog-preserved remains.

Pathological assessment of the remains indicated that the violence meted out to Clonycavan Man was excessive. He was killed instantly by a series of lethal blows to the head and chest from a heavy object with a sharp cutting edge, presumably an axe. A 40cm-long incision was also noted in the abdomen area, suggesting perhaps disembowelment in antiquity.

Oldcroghan Man

At 362–175BC, Oldcroghan Man also dates to the early iron age, but in contrast to Clonycavan Man was powerfully built, and measured an estimated 5ft 11.5 inches (1.82m). The remains were discovered on May 14 2003 in the bucket of an excavator during drain clearance in a privatelyowned bog in the townland of Oldcroghan, Co Offaly, 25 miles from the Clonycavan findspot. The finder immediately contacted the local Garda station. Several women had been reported missing, and the police notified relevant authorities including the State Pathologist's Office.

When news of the discovery reached archaeologists at Dúchas – the Heritage Service and the NMI through a radio broadcast, a suspicion arose that the remains might be archaeological in nature. Once the state pathologist declared them ancient, a preliminary archaeological inspection was carried out at the findspot and the remains were released to the NMI.

Further examination of the site and find indicated that Oldcroghan Man would probably have lain in a supine position in the bog. The body consists only of the torso and upper limbs: the head, neck, lower abdomen, pelvic area and lower limbs seem to have been removed before deposition. What survived was in an exceptional state of preservation, with superbly preserved skin and fingernails and some internal organs. The lack of decomposition shows that the remains were deposited in the bog soon after death had occurred.

Oldcroghan Man would have been between 25 and 40 years of age when he met a gruesome end. The extent of his injuries far outweighed what would have been necessary to kill him, a concept which Dutch archaeologist Wijnand van der Sanden has referred to as "multiple deaths" or "overkill".

Detailed analysis revealed that Oldcroghan Man died from a penetrating stab wound to the left side of his chest, with an incised wound on his left arm which he may have received attempting to ward off the blade. Pathological evidence suggested that this was a frontal attack by a right-handed person. Circular cuts were visible around the upper parts of both nipples but it is not certain whether these occurred pre- or post-mortem. In addition, both his upper arms were pierced right through, possibly with a sharp implement. Withies, made from two twisted rods of two-year old hazel strands, were inserted through these holes and are still visible in situ today. Archaeological excavations undertaken by the author and others at the findspot revealed a 30cm length of the same withy (possibly broken off during peat works) and several loose fingernails. Finally, he was decapitated and partially dismembered, and his torso deposited in a bog pool.

He was naked, save for a slit-braided leather armband with copper-alloy fittings on his upper left arm. Such an ornament is so far unique in Ireland, but a band was also found on the upper left arm of Lindow Man, in this case made of fox-fur. The most striking features of Oldcroghan Man were perhaps the hands; carefully manicured fingernails, minimal scarring to the fingers and absence of wear to the fingertips seem to denote an individual from the upper echelons of society unaccustomed to manual labour. Furthermore, his fingernails also provided insights into his lifestyle and diet: palaeodietary analysis of one of the nails revealed nitrogen enrichment indicating a protein-rich diet, suggesting that he was killed in the winter months when meat consumption was higher. Interestingly, however, analysis of his stomach contents revealed that his last meal actually consisted of ground cereal and buttermilk.

Overall, the examination concluded that, despite suffering from a bout of pleurisy at one point (evidenced by scarring on his lungs), Oldcroghan Man had enjoyed good health during his lifetime.

Future discoveries

The discoveries of Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man, like that of Lindow Man, have provided a unique opportunity to examine mummified or well-preserved prehistoric soft tissue remains in their natural wet state, which can reveal more to the researcher than skeletal remains. From a conservation point of view the remains, which are kept in an environmentally-controlled display case, are continuously monitored to ensure their survival for posterity. In addition, a policy was developed during the course of the project for dealing with future discoveries of bog-preserved human remains.

Since the establishment of the project in 2003, three further instances of human remains have come to light in bogs at Derrycashel, Co Roscommon, Derryvarroge, Co Kildare and Cloonshannagh, Co Roscommon. The Derrycashel body, discovered in January 2005, comprises the partially skeletonised remains of a young adult male dating to 1431–1291BC. The body, which was almost complete, appears to have been lying in a flexed position in the bog. The remains from Derryvarroge, discovered in July 2006, consist only of the buttocks and upper thigh of an adult male dating to AD228–343. Finally, the skeletonised remains from Cloonshannagh, unearthed in May 2005, are those of an adult female dating to ad645–680. The remains and their associated clothing were highly disturbed as a result of the peat-cutting process. All three bog bodies are currently being examined and documented as part of ongoing work relating to the Bog Bodies Research Project. These recent discoveries bring to over 130 the number of individuals that have come to light in bogs in Ireland, ranging in date from the neolithic period to early modern times.

Undoubtedly, the intensive programme of research has produced a wealth of exciting results and provided wide-ranging information on Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man. Despite their violent demise in the midlands of Ireland over 2,300 years ago, they have come to us as ambassadors of their time, speaking to us across the millennia and encouraging us to revise our understanding of Irish iron age society.

Isabella Mulhall is assistant keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division and coordinator of the Bog Bodies Research Project at the National Museum of Ireland, and was a member of the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition planning team. She thanks numerous international experts and colleagues from the NMI, particularly from the IAD and the Conservation Department; and Valerie Dowling, Donach Ó Lonargáin and Peter Moloney, Photographic Dept, NMI and Caroline Wilkinson, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee and Janice Aitken, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (Clonycavan Man facial reconstruction). The Bog Bodies Research Project will be fully published by the National Museum of Ireland in a forthcoming monograph.

Bog Bodies reading list

Asingh, P & Lynnerup, N (eds) 2007. Grauballe Man: An Iron Age Bog Body Revisited. Moesgaard. Jutland Archaeological Society.

Brothwell, D 1986. The Bogman & the Archaeology of People. London. British Museum Press.

Kelly, EP 2006. Kingship & sacrifice: Iron Age bog bodies and boundaries. Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 35.

Mulhall, I & Briggs, EK 2007. Presenting a past society to a present day audience: bog bodies in iron age Ireland. Museum Ireland 17, 71–81.

Ó Floinn, R 2006. Appendix 1: Supplementary list of Irish bog bodies noted since 1995. In N Bermingham & M Delaney, The Bog Body from Tumbeagh, 217–227. Bray. Wordwell Ltd.

Stead, IM, Bourke, JB & Brothwell, D 1986. Lindow Man: The Body in the Bog. London. British Museum Press.

Turner, RC & Scaife, RG (eds) 1995. Bog Bodies: New Discoveries & New Perspectives. London. British Museum Press.

van der Sanden, W 1996. Through Nature to Eternity: the Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe. Amsterdam. Batavian Lion International.

Eamonn P Kelly has found a link between bog bodies and other finds and historic boundaries, leading to a theory of kingship rituals.

book cover

Eamonn Kelly's preliminary case for his kingship and boundary theory is described in this Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide 35, and was presented at the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition in Dublin in 2006.

Oldcroghan Man was found during the excavation of a drain along what is now a townland and parish boundary, once the territorial boundary between Tuath Cruacháin and Tuath na Cille (a townland is a parish subdivision; Tuath is often translated as "tribe"). Wondering if this was coincidental, Eamonn Kelly ( keeper of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland) noted that Clonycavan Man, though the precise find spot is unknown, had been found where three baronies meet on the county border between Meath and Westmeath, which separated the ancient territories of Brega and Mide.

Kelly looked at other bog bodies. Two dated iron age bodies had been found close to barony boundaries (baronies are typically county subdivisions), and one actually on one (and a county boundary); a fourth had been found close to a parish boundary. Further research revealed that over 40 bog bodies – most of them likely to be iron age – had been found on important boundaries, mainly barony.

Kelly then considered other bog finds. So common were finds on or close to boundaries, that he proposes the well-known Lisnacrogher find, in Co Antrim, as "the type site for boundary deposits during the iron age". Found after a lake was drained in the 19th century, the Lisnacrogher "hoard", says Kelly, contained a "prodigious number of objects", including many sword and spear parts, a gold necklace torc, bronze ornaments and horse fittings and iron tools. The site is on the boundary between two baronies and the meeting place of three townlands.

A wide range of objects were found on historic boundaries, says Kelly, which implied that many boundaries had a greater antiquity, especially barony boundaries. There are, for example, seven boundary hoards of horse harness fittings; of up to 20 wooden yokes of late bronze age or early iron age date, at least two were found on boundaries. As were four iron age bronze cauldrons, the well-known bronze Ardbrin trumpet (Co Down), five isolated weapons finds (including a leather shield and wooden swords), six beehive corn-grinding querns, the two gold collars from Ardnaglug (Co Roscommon) and all nine provenanced finds of iron age bog butter.

Kelly goes on to argue that as major rivers and the shores of large lakes often defined boundaries, perhaps it was their boundary status rather than the presence of water that led to a similar range of artefacts being found in rivers, lakes and sea shores. Boundary find sites are not always wet: horse fittings, for example, were found on farmland at Clongill, Co Meath, where six parishes and three baronies meet.

What does all this mean? The range of prehistoric objects suggests to Kelly that the prime concern was sovereignty rituals. In medieval times, after the inauguration of a king, his horse, harness, weapons and dress were shared amongst his close retinue and the church. A pagan version of this might embrace a leader's "sacred marriage to the territorial earth goddess", in which objects associated with inauguration were buried on tribal borders. Early research, says Kelly, suggests this practice may extend back into the bronze age, with metal hoards being buried on ancient boundaries. MP"

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