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24 November 2010
Unravelling the secrets of Irish Iron Age bog bodies

When the remains of one of Ireland's oldest murder victims came out of the bog near Croghan Hill in Co Meath (Ireland) in May 2003, Irish police was called in to investigate a possible murder. By the time radiocarbon dating revealed that he had lived well over 2,000 years ago (between 362 and 175 BCE), archaeologists had already taken over - but they still had a murder inquiry on their hands. And a brutal one at that. Old Croghan Man (as he was christened) was a man who once stood an impressive 1.97m (6ft 6in) tall. He was stabbed in the chest, his nipples were slashed and a twisted branch of hazel was threaded though a hole cut in his upper arm. He was then beheaded and dumped in a boggy pool on an ancient territorial boundary.
     This Iron Age discovery would have been remarkable on its own, but three months before - and just 25 miles away - another man's body had been taken from a peat bog on the boundaries of Meath and Westmeath. Analysis of his remains revealed that he had lived around the same time as Old Croghan Man. In stark contrast, Clonycavan Man was slight but his hair was gelled up in a style akin to a Mohican, adding inches to his height. His elaborate hairstyle showed that Irish men in the Iron Age sought out imported, luxury products: he used a type of hair gel made of resin from pine trees found only in Spain and France.
     This man was clearly an aristocrat who was privileged enough to be able to pay a lot of time and attention to his physical appearance. Yet he suffered three axe blows to the head a further blow to the chest and he was possibly disembowelled. Like his neighbour Old Croghan Man, he was dumped in a boggy grave on a territorial boundary.
     A team of 40 international experts set about unravelling the secrets of these two men and, in so doing, have succeeded in opening an exceptional window on Ireland's Celtic past. Thanks to digital technology, we know what Clonycavan Man might have looked like. Analysis of his nails showed that he regularly ate meat, an expensive luxury, but his final meal was of buttermilk and cereal. Eamonn Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the Irish National Museum, thinks that Old Croghan Man's final meal may provide proof that he was being sacrificed to the goddess of the land.
     The slicing of both men's nipples may seem grotesque and bizarre in a modern context, but in ancient times the kissing of a king's nipples was seen as a mark of respect, or an act of submission. "Cutting these men's nipples would have prevented them from ruling as kings in this life - or the next," Mr Kelly explains. And, he believes, they were very possibly kings, or at least failed candidates for kingship.
     The fact they were found on boundaries is also full of significance. Boundaries have been important since earliest times and, according to Kelly, you often find offerings deposited in them since the Bronze Age. Kelly believes also that the hazel branch cut into Old Croghan Man's arm was intended as a sort of semi-magical charm. He thinks it is a spancel or a type of tether that was used to restrain animals. There are extensive references to these tethers in mythology and how they were used magically on both humans and animals. "In this case," says Kelly, "the spancel could have been used to invoke a protective taboo safeguarding boundaries, and to ward off interlopers."
     Thanks to the discovery of Old Croghan Man, Clonycavan Man and about five other Iron Age bodies, these people's rites and rituals are also coming into focus. It's easy to think of life at that time as nasty, brutish and short, but, muses Kelly, "people would have had different expectations. We can't really get back into their mindset, but I think it would have been richer in many ways."

Edited from Independent.ie (6 November 2010)

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