The Ashes

Technology, Science and other news
August 23, 2009

The Strangest Things Pulled Out of Peat Bogs

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Filed under : General


A few thousand years ago, someone living in what is now Ireland made some butter, stuck it into an oak barrel, wandered out into a bog about 25 miles west of Dublin, and buried it.

Somehow, that someone lost track of it, which two lucky archaeologists discovered when they dug up the stashed loot earlier this year in the Gilltown bog, between the Irish towns of Timahoe and Staplestown.

But that wasn’t the first keg of butter that’s been preserved by the strange chemistry of the bog. Or the 10th. More than 270 kegs of bog butter have been retrieved from the wetlands, along with dozens of ancient bodies, swords, and ornaments. Here, we run down some of the strangest things that scientists and citizens have pulled from the peat.

All kinds of bodies have been found with their skin and organs intact. The objects are preserved by the remarkable properties of Sphagnum mosses, which come with preservatives built into their cell walls. After they die, they decay very slowly. and anything that falls into the Sphagnum peat bogs decays more slowly, too.


Murder weapons are a common find. Archaeologists believe the bogs were sites for ritual sacrifices, because many of the bodies appear to have been tortured or “overkilled.” In the picture (above) of a find named Yde girl, you can see the cord that was used to strangle her. Tollund Man suffered a similar fate: A noose was found around his neck.


Murder wasn’t all that happened out on the bogs. Multiple trepanated skulls, that is to say, skulls with holes drilled in them, have been found. Based on the use of the procedure in medieval times, one hypothesis is that the “operation may have been performed to remove a blood clot or a less-tangible thing like a spirit” from an individual. Even now, there’s still a small number of people who think drilling holes in their skulls is therapeutic.

While we don’t know much about the people who wandered these bogs thousands of years ago, analytical chemistry has helped identify substances that make them seem startlingly modern. One corpse’s hair appears to have been coated with primitive hair gel, made from “vegetable oil mixed with resin from pine trees found in Spain and southwest France.” The man lived around 300 B.C.


Beyond the bodies, which were the subject of a traveling international exhibit, The Mysterious Bog People, functional artifacts are often found, too. These swords from what are now Sweden and Denmark were discovered in the late 1890s.


This wheel was discovered in the Netherlands along with another just like it. It’s about 2½ feet in diameter and carved from a single piece of oak. It’s been dated to 2700 B.C., which makes it one of the oldest wheels found in Europe. (But let’s not get bogged down in reinventing the wheel.)


A construction crew working on a highway in 1955 pulled up this dugout canoe from a Dutch bog. It’s almost 9 feet long and was radiocarbon-dated to 8500 B.C.

Images: 1. flickr/ronlayters 2. Drenth Museum, Netherlands 3. Drenth Museum 4. Anthropologisk Laboratorium of Denmark 5. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 6. Drenth Museum 7. Drenth Museum

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