Bog Bodies Exhibition Report

By Eoghan Stanley, DT203-1

A fascinating new discovery of Iron Age bog bodies was made at Oldcroghan, Co .Offaly and Clonycavan, Co. Meath in 2003. Today they have new homes in the National Museum of Ireland in an exhibition called "Kingship and Sacrifice" and they are located on the ground floor in a room off to the left.

The bodies are not intact and in fact only one of the three bodies has all of its limbs. Even this one has very little skin left but all of the bones are intact except for the left hand. This is still quite remarkable considering that this person lived over two thousand three hundred years ago. The other two bodies are not intact because they have been cut in half. One was cut by a peat cutting machine but the other was thought to have been performed ritually before burial because the cut was precisely done and all the organs were still left inside.

The exhibition name "Kingship & Sacrifice" comes from the theory that the people who were buried in the bogs were kings who had lost favour and were buried with important objects and prisoners who were sacrificed near or close to boundary lines of kingdoms. Scientists were able to find butter and cereal in their stomachs which would have been a typical meal of the working class in that time. One body had a type of hair gel and was thought to be a part of a royal family because his hands were smooth and his nails were clean. He was found with three axe blows to the head and one to the chest. It is suggested that he was a king and that he must have been captured and tortured before he was killed.

A team of international specialists worked with the Conservation Department in the museum to examine these human remains using CT (computed tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans to discover how the men died. Both are fairly new techniques which have been around since the 1980's. The MRI scan uses magnetic and radio waves, so there is no exposure to X-rays or any other damaging forms of radiation. It works by sending radio waves 10,000 to 30,000 time stronger than the magnetic field of the earth through the body. Theses wave move the body's atoms, and the nuclei change position. When they move back into place a radio wave is emitted from the material the body is made up of. These scans were used to map the body's tissues and they determined how the bog bodies were killed.

These bodies were found deep in bogs which are made up of 90 percent water and this does not allow the growth of bacteria that decay flesh. The wet lands provide the perfect conditions to prevent decay and mummify human flesh; the conditions are cold, acidic and oxygen-free  and so act to tan the skin like leather preserving the skin and the bones. Each bog has a different pH level and some might be more acidic than others. The bodies are under water but as soon as they are removed, they will decay again. A bog skeleton is a bog mummy this is produced in a fen while a non-decayed bog mummy will only be found in a bog. This is why we have different bodies in different stages of decay and scientists are still trying to understand the complete process that takes place in a bog.

After they were found in the bog, the bodies were quite flexible and easy to move. To slow down the decaying process, the bodies underwent a freeze-drying process to keep out bacteria. They are now stored in glass containers in the museum for all to see. 

Useful Links:

Back to the School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Homepage