My tour to the Kingship and Sacrifice ("Bog Bodies") Exhibition

Katelynn Parent, November 2006

On the first of November, DT203/1 (Forensic and Environmental Analysis) students went to the National Museum of Ireland to take part in a tour of the "Bog bodies" exhibition. In 2003, the two bodies were found at Oldcroghan, Co.Offaly and Clonycavan, Co.Meath. Due to the amazing preservation that occurred in these bogs, both historians and scientists are left with a detailed insight into the lives and deaths of these men.

Before viewing the exhibition, we were first introduced to some relevant history. Many bodies have been found in bogs throughout Europe. It is believed when those in power died their bodies were placed on significant boundaries or hills overlooking their land. They were usually well dressed, and for some reason wore only one shoe. Food deposits, cauldrons, ploughs, cloaks and swords were also found on these boundaries. In this exhibition some of these items can be viewed including 14th Century statues which were thought to represent gods, and a replica of the Gundestrop Cup.

Known as the Oldcroghan Man, the first body found in Co. Offaly was approximately 6'4'' in height. Only his upper body was found, and whilst his head had also been removed, his chest, arms, hands and fingers were perfectly intact. Analysis of his hair and nails left researchers with exact detail of the man's health in the months prior to death. He was thought to have had a final meal of oatmeal and buttermilk, although he had a meat rich diet for about six months before this. His manicured nails meant he was very wealthy. This was backed up when they found his nipples had been removed, thought to be a custom performed at that time when a king or nobleman had lost favour.

Found in Co. Meath, the Clonycavan Man was discovered by a machine working in the area. Although his lower body is believed to have been destroyed by the machine, researchers can tell he was approximately 5"2 in height. The roughly shaved nobleman still had stubble on his chin, but it was the hair on his head that was of main interest. His hair had not been washed in some time and contained parasites. He was not a very tall man, but his "high" hairstyle added a few inches. He also had a type of gel in his hair which came from pine trees found in Italy, meaning he must have been very wealthy. CAT scans were taken of his teeth by a lady named Joann Fletcher. Again, from his hair they were able to tell he had a diet consisting for six months of meat and four months of fruit and vegetables. It is also believed he had been hit on the back of his head where his brains may have come out. They even found moles on his back!

Although the exhibition is based around these two men, another body found in Galway at the ancient boundary of Ui Mhaine, Gallagh Man, was also on display. This adult male is approximately two thousand years old and is 5"10 in height. His body was found in 1821. Unlike the other two men, this is a fully intact body, but little information about him is left as the condition of the body has deteriorated significantly from when he was first found. This is due to the body being dug up and reburied several times after it was first found and then being allowed to dry out. He was found in the bog at a depth of 2.9 m, arms crossed and legs bent with a wooden stake at either side of him. He has only one tooth remaining due to all the handling he underwent but is believed to have had a full set when first found. It is thought that he was strangled and stabbed in the chest and was found naked except for the deer skin cape he wore around him.

I also learnt a few things on this tour about the Bog Body Research Programme which was established in 2003. The Irish Antiques Division and the Conservation Department came together to examine scientifically and document fully these human remains and immediate excavation and metal detection of the Clonycavan and Oldcroghan sites took place. The bodies themselves went through endless methods of preservation and analysis. We got to see a video showing some of these techniques where they first soaked the body in polyethylene glycol (PEG) solution, a water soluble wax that reduces shrinkage. They then placed the body in a freeze drying unit, and after that it was then again coated with PEG. The National Museum of Ireland also took tissue and bone samples which are kept in the tissue bank so that they are available for future analysis.

Scientists spent an endless amount of time analysing the bodies. They went through anatomical analysis, pathological analysis, pollen analysis, dietary analysis, assessment of DNA survival in the bogs, histological analysis of tissue samples, gut and stomach contents, dental analysis, radiocarbon dating, CT and MRI scans, laser imaging, infrared and UV photography. On a much simpler note I learnt that the bodies were brown in colour due to peat leakage.

All in all our tour of the 'Kingship and Sacrifice Exhibition' was very interesting. Being up close and personal made learning about these bodies much more fun, and also showed how textbook chemistry and science applies in real world situations. I found the exhibition itself was well set up and the tour guide was very helpful with all our questions. It was a brilliant experience and I will definitely be returning sometime in the near future.

Useful Links:

Back to the School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Homepage