Peat bogs have long been recognised as a source of unusual and remarkably well preserved ancient remains – these include famous Bog Bodies like Ireland’s own Clonycavan Man – who can be viewed in the National Museum along with three other Irish examples.
Most of these poor unfortunates were found to have been dispatched in gruesome and painful ways during the Iron Age, possibly as sacrificial victims, kingship rivals or criminals suffering execution. The high acidity, lack of oxygen (anaerobic conditions) and low temperatures in the water-logged depths of a sphagnum peat bog cause the extreme preservation of organic remains by tanning and encourage the formation of adipocere – a waxy, preserved body fat, formed during the process of anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis.
A less morbid but no less exciting ancient product of peat bogs is Bog Butter, and it was a recent discovery of this type which saw Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd’s Director Ross MacLeod called to Shancloon near Caherlistrane, north Galway to investigate the unexpected discovery of a large timber object by Ray Moylan from Liss, Headford and local contractor Declan McDonagh during peat cutting works.
The first archaeologist on the scene, Ross was able to examine the amazing find and ascertain that it was indeed a large wooden cask filled with approximately 2 stone (28lbs) of Bog Butter, and possibly as old as 2,500 years. Bog butter can consist either of dairy based fats or tallow (animal fat), it is yet to be ascertained what the Shancloon example consists of.
Theories about the origins of Bog Butter deposits are divided between two schools. The first suggests ritual ‘votive offerings’ – the deliberate deposition of the casks in honour of/supplication to a deity. The second school proposes ‘human error’ – accidental deposition either as a result of forgetfulness or the death of the owner. Bogs would have acted as a reliable form of refrigeration for a winter stock of butter surplus and the unfortunate owners of the butter failed to adequately mark the stockpile.
The IPCC (Irish Peatland Conservation Council) lists a reference to a recipe for Bog Butter from an account of Irish food written by Dinely in 1681: ‘Butter, layed up in wicker baskets, mixed with a sort of garlic and buried for some time in a bog to make a provision of an high taste for Lent’.
A full account of the story and quotes from Ross can be read here on the Irish Times website here.
What is your opinion on this divisive subject? Make your mark below for ‘Votive’ or ‘Accidental’!