Amulet, Old Croghan Man, 362-175 BC


A history of Ireland in 100 objects:The dazzling regalia that survives from ancient Ireland suggests that kings had enormous prestige, both physical and spiritual. But at least by the early Iron Age, royal power had become highly conditional. The deal for the king was clear and brutal: produce the goods or be ritually slaughtered and sacrificed. If the king could not guarantee peace and prosperity, he was sent back into the land to which he was ritually wed.

In 2003, shortly after a well-preserved Iron Age body was found in a bog in Clonycavan, Co Meath, another was found at Croghan Hill in Co Offaly. Both bodies, on close examination, had the marks of high status.

Clonycavan Man’s hair contains an imported gel. Old Croghan Man has a leather amulet, decorated in the fashionable continental style, on his arm. It represents the sun, with which Irish kingship is closely associated. Both men also had their nipples sliced before they died. Together, these features suggest that the men were kings. The king’s nipples represented the life-giving sun. Their cutting suggests that their power was being ritually decommissioned.

Both men appear to have been “killed” three times: by strangulation, by stabbing and by drowning. However ritualised, Old Croghan Man’s death was garishly violent: he was bound with hazel rods threaded through holes in his upper arms, stabbed in the chest, struck in the neck, decapitated and cut in half. (All that has been found are his torso and arms.) But the violence was not mere sadism. “This,” says Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, “isn’t done for torture or to inflict pain. It’s a triple killing because the goddess to whom the sacrifice is made has three natures. She’s goddess of sovereignty, of fertility and of war and death. So they’re making sacrifice to her in all her forms, and the king has to die three deaths.”

Poignantly, Old Croghan Man has a wound on his arm, which he lifted instinctively to try to shield himself from the weapon with which he was stabbed in the chest. Before his death, he was fed a ritual meal of milk and grain: not the high-status meat-based diet that is revealed by analysis of his nails but one meant, rather, to symbolise the earth’s fertility.

He had been a huge man, almost six and a half feet tall. It is easy to imagine him as a champion or hero. He was young and healthy, and there is little sign that he did physical labour. The bog where his body is found is close to the foot of the hill where the kings of the Uí Failge were inaugurated. He was killed near the site where he had become king.

This culture of brutal sacrifice may tell us something about the mood of the times. In the last centuries BC, Ireland became colder and wetter. Food may have been more scarce. The great prestige of kings had always been linked to their claim to reflect the views of the other world. When times were bad, this very claim became fatal.

Thanks to Eamonn Kelly

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444,