|22 August 2009
3,000-year-old butter found in Irish bog
An oak barrel, full of butter, estimated to be roughly 3,000 years old has been found in Gilltown bog, between Timahoe and Staplestown (Kildare, Ireland). The amazing discovery of the barrel is being described by archaeology experts in the National Museum as a 'really fine example' was found by two Bord na Mona (the company responsible for the mechanised harvesting of peat) workers.
The pair, John Fitzharris and Martin Lane, were harrowing the bog one day in late May when they noticed a distinctive white streak in the peat. "We got down to have a look. We knelt down and felt something hard and started to dig it out with out bare hands," John explained. "We could smell it. And it was attracting crows," he added. What they found was an oak barrel, cut out of a trunk, full of butter. It was largely intact, except for a gash towards the bottom of it caused by the harrow. It was head down, and had a lid; something that has excited the archaeologists.
The barrel is also split along the middle, which is common with utensils filled with butter found in the bogs. A conservator at the National Museum, Carol Smith, said that the butter expands over time, causing the split. The barrel is about three feet long and almost a foot wide, and weighs almost 35kgs, (77lbs). The butter has changed to white and is now adipocere, which is essentially animal fat, the same sort of substance that is found on well-preserved bodies of people or animals found in the bog.
"It's rare to find a barrel as intact as that," said Pádraig Clancy, conservator of the National Museum of Ireland, "especially with the lid intact, and attached. It's a really fine example." He estimates that the barrel is approximately 3,000 years old. At the moment it is being dried out by staff at the Conservation Department. Once dry it will be soaked in a wax-like solution which preserves it. Other examples of bog butter they showed the Leinster Leader tended to be less intact and much smaller.
It is thought that the butter was put in the bog for practical reasons, rather than ritual. "There are accounts dating back to the 1850's with people used to wash their cattle once a year in the bog and then put some butter back into the bog. It was piseogary. It's open to interpretation, but we're inclined to think that 3,000 years ago they were just storing it." Such a large amount of butter, he estimated would have probably been the harvest of a community rather than an individual farmer.
The bogs of Kildare have yielded quite a lot of artefacts from the past, including spear heads, pottery and bodies. "We've found no body parts in Gilltown bog," conservator Carol Smith said, before adding, "but here's hoping!"
Source: Leinster Leader (19 August 2009)
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