(and a warning about tasting the archaeological record!)
‘Bog bodies’ are some of the most familiar finds associated with peatland archaeology. However, they are in fact comparatively rare. In this blog Benjamin Gearey, co-author of An Introduction to Peatland Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments, tells the tale of the discovery of the Tumbeagh Bog Body. This case study is significant both in terms of the evidence it provides and because of the insight it offers into the environmental challenges facing peatland archaeology; it also warns against eating what you’ve excavated!
An introduction to bog bodies
In the spring of the year 1781 Lord Moira; having ordered a survey to be made of a farm on his estate, his surveyor brought me a plait of hair, informing me that it was taken from the scull of a skeleton that had been long dug up by the tenant in the autumn of 1780. I lost no time in making an inquiry into the particulars of such a discovery, and the result of that inquiry was as follows:
So begins the account of Elizabeth Rawdon (Countess Moira; 1731–1808) outlining what we can describe as the first known ‘scientific’ investigation of a ‘bog body’, discovered at Drumkeragh, Co. Down, Ireland (Moira 1785). The body was preserved, albeit partially, as a result of the anoxic, waterlogged conditions of the peat it was found in during cutting by local cottagers.
A little known fact is that only one ‘bog body’ has ever been discovered by an actual archaeologist
‘Bog bodies’ or ‘bog skeletons’, are without much doubt, the best known and perhaps most evocative of peatland archaeological finds, both within the profession and also in wider public perception. However, they are in fact rare discoveries, compared to the myriad other archaeological sites and finds from peatlands across the United Kingdom and northwest Europe since widespread drainage and cutting of peat from the 19th century and earlier.
A little known fact is that only one ‘bog body’ has ever been discovered by an actual archaeologist – Cathy Moore, who spotted the remains of the Tumbeagh Medieval Bog Body, protruding from the cut-over surface of a bog in County Offaly, Ireland during a fieldwalking survey by the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit (IAWU) in 1998.
Something you wouldn’t want on your toast!
An especially interesting detail of this event concerns the initial thought that fatty particles scattered around the find spot were ‘bog butter’. These deposits of dairy fat were placed in Irish peatlands from the Bronze Age through to the 17th Century, for reasons that remain the subject of much discussion. The Tumbeagh material was in fact adipocere, a waxy substance formed by the decomposition of human bodies in damp conditions. It is very important to note that Cathy Moore did not follow one of her archaeological colleagues’ suggestion that she should taste the fatty fragments to confirm the (erroneous) identification!
In a specifically archaeological rather than gustatory sense, what is significant about the Tumbeagh find, is the subsequent excavations and associated analyses of the find represent one of very few integrated excavations of a bog body in its landscape context. The work incorporated detailed stratigraphic survey, careful assessment of the area around the findspot prior to block lifting of the remains for later excavation in the laboratory.
Aside from the work of the IAWU and the keen eyes of Cathy Moore, this ‘bog body’ would have been destroyed completely
Palaeoenvironmental analyses and radiocarbon dating permitted the human remains to be ‘placed’ within its contemporary wetland and adjacent dryland landscape. The irony of this need to ensure detailed and appropriate preservation by record, concerns the fact that, as is the case for many other ‘bog bodies’, the Tumbeagh remains were partial (only the legs survived) and largely destroyed by mechanical peat extraction machinery. Aside from the work of the IAWU and the keen eyes of Cathy Moore, this ‘bog body’ would have been destroyed completely, milled into thousands of fragments.
A race against time
This is a challenge that still faces peatland archaeology across northwest Europe in particular, due to a combination of human activity and climate change. Whilst we have some idea of the scale of loss of sites and strategies for protection, we desperately need closer collaboration with colleagues leading and undertaking restoration work or the archaeology that does survive, might be inadvertently damaged or destroyed. It is a cliche and sometimes a hyperbole to use this expression: but time really is running out…
An Introduction to Peatland Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments is available now from Oxbow Books.