Riddle of the legs in the bog

 

Human legs recovered from a Co Offaly bog, and which are being examined at the National Museum, may be the remains of a person who was ritually executed in pre-Christian times.

The legs, which have lain in peat for close to two thousand years, are well preserved, with both bone and skin still in good condition. Because researchers have only the bottom half of the body, theories on the cause of death are merely guesses. However, the fact that the body is unclothed, the presence of a wooden stake nearby and the peculiar flexing of the corpse's feet suggest it may be the remains of someone who was executed and dragged to a soggy grave.

Dr Maire Delaney, of Trinity College Dublin, has determined that the person was aged between 18 and 20. The best guess of the archaeologist assisting her, Ms Nora Bermingham, is that it has probably lain in the bog for between 1,500 and 2,500 years.

Another theory is that the person may have simply strayed across a particularly treacherous part of the bog and died accidentally, but similarities with remains found in Denmark and Britain point to a more violent death. The site where the body was found was a particularly "unstable and dangerous area of bog", according to Ms Bermingham, which makes it unlikely that someone would have chosen to cross.

The body was found when a team of archaeologists surveying Lemanaghan bog in Co Offaly came upon leather-like material which later turned out to be well-preserved but badly discoloured skin from the deceased's upper knee and thigh. The acidic environment of bogs has a "tanning effect" on skin, making it appear like leather. The body lay on its side and the unusual flexing of the feet suggests it was dragged there.

The legs are now lying in an acclimatised room in Collins Barracks in what looks like an large sod of turf. They are kept damp throughout the day to preserve them and are refrigerated during the night. Researchers hope to determine more precisely how long the corpse lay in the bog from analysis of peat surrounding the corpse, insect remains, and scrapings from the corpse's skin. However, the exact circumstances of this Co Offaly resident's death will remain a mystery unless the other half of the body is found.