Solving a 2,000-year-old death

IT STARTED like any episode of TV cop show CSI, with the discovery of a body

IT STARTED like any episode of TV cop show CSI,with the discovery of a body. The crime scene was decidedly different however, the middle of a peat bog in Co Laois.

But just as on CSI, the unearthing last month of this latest bog body will spark an intensive investigation to reveal information about the victim and how he or she met their death.

The latest technology and analytic methods will be used to reveal clues about the victim and how a life ended all those years ago. The findings will add a great deal to our understanding of how the early Irish lived and died.

“It was found in the townland of Cashel in Co Laois, in the Cúl na Móna bog,” says Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum. It was embedded in a bog that was being harvested for milled peat.


One pass of a machine revealed and partly damaged the body. Luckily, the driver saw the body protruding before he passed over a second time, obliterating the remains.

Gardaí were called but it was immediately apparent this was not a recent death. Kelly arrived to examine the scene and realised it was likely an Iron Age (500BC–400AD) body that had lain in the bog for anything up to 2,500 years.

The scene was examined, recorded and then the body was removed to the conservation lab at the National Museum. At this point, analysis will proceed slowly given the rarity of these ancient bog bodies and the relative completeness of this particular individual.

Kelly believes that most of the body is present up to the shoulders, but its gender so far remains a mystery. “We have a body, probably of a male, although we are not 100 per cent certain,” he says. “We are still working on that. It seems that the chest has been removed by the milling machine. The body is in a very contorted position and because it is crouched over we can’t see the genitalia.”

Museum staff and workers also began searching piled up milled peat on the bog, hoping to find missing parts of the body. “We have recovered the face and parts of the skull. Every bit is important as it fills in blanks. We have done pretty well,” he says.

Although the sex of the body has yet to be determined, something that can be confirmed is damage to the body that may have contributed to the individual’s death. “There are some cut marks on the body. They are an indication of someone who has been ritually killed. We are dealing with an Iron Age sacrifice,” Kelly says.

After it’s discovery, the body was moved into chilled storage and is constantly being sprayed to keep it moist. These bog bodies remain in such a well-preserved state because of the watery bog and the acidic conditions it produces, something that suppresses bacterial decomposition.

The museum is also acutely aware of the fact that these are the remains of a person. “We must clearly remember that we are dealing with human remains. We must treat these remains with dignity,” Kelly says.

Museum staff met yesterday to determine their next move. The last two bog bodies found in Ireland underwent expensive analysis and conservation, with some funding secured because the process was filmed to produce a television programme.

“The last bog bodies were found in 2003, when the Celtic Tiger was purring,” says Kelly. “Things are different now.

“We will have to look at our resources and look at what new technologies are available for analysis of the body.”

Already, academic interests both at home and abroad have come forward offering their services. International participation was a feature in the study of the 2003 bog bodies, Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, which were uncovered in Co Meath and Co Offaly respectively.

“There is a whole series of analyses that needs to be made,” Kelly explains. These tests can reveal an astounding amount of information about the body.

Its age will be determined by radio carbon dating and as a matter of course, it will be scanned using magnetic resonance imaging and also CT scanning.

There will be a general post mortem-type examination to determine likely age at death, overall health and whether the individual suffered from any diseases while alive.

Kelly was delighted to see there was hair present with the remains, something that is extremely valuable. The diet enjoyed by the person can in part be revealed by analysing hair, but also finger and toe nails.

“You get a continuing record of diet from the hair analysis,” Kelly says. This can also help reveal what time of year the person died, given meat was more commonly eaten during the winter and vegetables during the summer.

Any food residues left behind in the stomach may also help reveal what the person consumed as his or her last meal on earth.

Various clues may also point to the social status of the individual. Ultraviolet light will be used to scan for any tattoos and the peat the skin was in contact with will be analysed for organic material such as body paint.

“These are things that may give an indication of the social position of the individual,” Kelly says.

This kind of meticulous examination revealed a great deal about Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man. Those remains showed that they must have been important individuals in their community. Their hands and nails showed no signs of physical labour and one used a resin-based hair product that must have been an expensive commodity 2,000 years ago. Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man met a difficult end, given both were killed as part of some ritual before being deposited in the bog. Kelly believes that ritual killing will also prove to be the likely cause of death of this new bog body.

No assumptions can be made, however, until the painstaking scientific analysis is completed.

Bog day afternoon: Crime scene patience required

THE INCIDENT has all the hallmarks of a ritual murder. The victim was killed and then dumped in a bog. Investigating the crime will be a challenge however, not least because the death occurred more than 2,000 years ago.

The latest bog body find has caused great excitement generally but in particular at the National Museum. Specialists there will investigate the body and learn what this silent but important witness has to tell about what almost certainly will prove to be a ritual killing, says Eamonn Kelly the museum’s keeper of Irish antiquities.

“We are doing the same things as a crime-scene team,” he says. They will try to glean evidence from the remains, looking for answers about who the victim was, how he or she was killed and who might have killed them. “These are the answers we seek to answer. It is a crime scene in a very real sense,” he says.

Kelly has reasons for believing that this was no accidental death. The last two bog bodies discovered in Ireland, Old Croghan Man in Co Meath and Clonycavan Man in Co Offaly, were shown after intensive study to have been murdered.

Neither of these were rash acts of violence, they were planned killings carried out in a specific way, says Kelly. “This bog body is in a location very similar to Old Croghan Man.”

The Meath body was in an ancient baronial boundary that surrounded the site where the Kings of Meath were inaugurated. Clonycavan Man was dropped in a bog along a boundary surrounding the inaugur- ation site of the Kings of Laois.

The Co Laois body was also recovered at such a boundary. “That brings us into the realms of kingly inauguration and sacrifice,” Kelly says.

Human sacrifices or perhaps the execution of royal prisoners may have been a regular part of becoming a king in Ireland two millennia ago. Both of the earlier bodies provided clues that they were important personages in their communities, with well-nourished physiques and hands that showed no signs of work.

For this reason the bog body exhibition at the National Museum in Kildare Street is entitled Kingship and Sacrifice.

Kelly believes the Laois bog body will also yield up clues that show that this individual too died in their youth as part of a gruesome rite.