In 1959 the skeleton of a young woman, the skull of an infant, approximately two years old together with some animal bones (sheep/goat, dog and antler), were found in a bog in the townland of Derrymaquirk on the eastern side of Lough Gara, Co Roscommon. A large stone had been placed on the stomach of the woman and a piece of wood lay under her head. Archaeologists believe that the piece of antler may have been significant in terms of the religious beliefs of the time. This burial has been dated to between 750 - 200 BC. Unlike other bog bodies which appear to have been placed in bog pools, the Derrymaquirk remains were in a cut grave and archaeologists believe that this was a formal burial rather than the disposal of victims of sacrifice.
Other examples of human remains similar to those at Derrymaquirk have been found in bog areas in the west of Ireland. The bodies of a man and child were found in Sheegeragh townland, Co. Roscommon and a deer antler was found nearby. A human skeleton found in the bog at Kinnakinnelly townland, Co. Galway, was also found with deer bones and dated from the Iron Age. Another bog body from Gallagh, Co. Galway, was dated from the same period.
Archaeologists believe that the siting of the Derrymaquirk grave in boggy ground may have been coincidental. The Derrymaquirk grave is a boundary burial of a type known as a ferta. Many such burials have been identified on sites that are not boggy in nature. By locating cemeteries on boundaries during the Iron Age and early medieval period, it was believed that the ancestors interred there would act as guardians and protect the people. Burials in such cemeteries regularly contain red deer bones and antlers placed there as votive offerings.
Hundreds of bog bodies have been discovered in the boglands of Europe over the last few centuries, of which about 130 have been found in Ireland. The cold, acidic and anaerobic conditions in peat bogs preserve the bodies. The skin and internal organs are frequently well preserved while the bones are often dissolved by the acid. Some of the human remains discovered show signs of torture and execution, with evidence of hanging, strangulation, stabbing and bludgeoning. The majority of Irish bog bodies date from the Iron Age
More recent discoveries of Irish bog bodies are Clonycavan Man, Oldcroghan Man and Cashel man. These have provided important new insights into the ancient practice of disposing of bodies in bogs and have received extensive coverage in the media.
Clonycavan Man was discovered in 2003 on the border between Co. Meath and Co. Westmeath and has been dated to 392 – 201 BC. He was between 25 – 40 years of age and had been ritually killed. The nipples of Clonycavan Man had been partly cut.
The body of Oldcroghan Man (362 – 175 BC) was also found in 2003 while digging a drain along a parish boundary that once formed the boundary of the ancient tuatha of Croghan, Co Offaly. As in the case Clonycavan Man, circular cuts were visible around the upper parts of both nipples but it is not certain whether these occurred before or after death.
In ancient Ireland, sucking a king’s nipples was a gesture of submission and a means of placing oneself under the protection of the king. Archaeologists believe that the cutting of the nipples of Oldcroghan Man was part of the ritual in which he was ‘decommissioned’ from the role of king.
Cashel Man was found in 2011 in Cashel, Co. Laois and dated to 2000 BC. It is believed to be the oldest fleshed bog body to have been found in Europe.
The boglands of Ireland have provided us with a unique insight into the lives and beliefs of our ancient ancestors.