Last summer, I took my sons to the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin. It was a great success; they were amazed by the hordes of ancient gold, fascinated by the Viking swords and longship, but what excited us all the most was the exhibition entitled 'Kingship and Sacrifice'.
This display hosts several prehistoric bodies pulled from Ireland's peat bogs, and other items plumbed from the depths which may or may not be associated with them, such as gold jewelry, head-dresses, weapons, eating utensils and items concerned with corn and milk production. When the Irish decide to do something with their archaeology, it has to be said, they do it very well indeed.
The mood is somber, respectful; the lighting subdued. The prehistoric past of Ireland's Kings is conjured up before our eyes with imagination and artistry, whilst we gaze with wonder into the faces of real people who lived and breathed and loved and died thousands of years before us. It's a spectacular and unforgettable experience.
But how were they so well preserved? Well, it's all down to the unique habitat of the Irish bog.
The word 'bog' is derived from the Irish word bogarch, which means 'soft'. Peat bog covers 17% of Ireland's surface, which gives us the third highest proportion of peatland in the world, after Canada and Finland.
It takes one thousand years to grow just a one meter depth of bog. The peat itself consists of 95% water, the remainder made up of rotted vegetation, pollen, dust and the like. In Ireland, it has traditionally been cut and dried and burned in the fireplace as turf. It is usually as a result of turf-cutting that the bog bodies come to light. The cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions within the peat prevent decay and act to mummify and preserve the tissues of animal and human bodies.
Around a hundred bodies have been found in our Irish bogs to date, some male, some female, and those of children too. Some were thought to be there by accident, perhaps as a result of falling into the bog and drowning. Others were considered to be formal (and some not so formal) burials, and others appear to be rather more sinister.
Of these latter bodies, the most famous are known as Cashel Man, who was discovered near Portlaoise in 2011, and at over 4000 years old, is said to be the oldest European bog body ever found with skin intact; Old Croghan Man from Co. Offally, and Clonycavan Man from Co. Meath. The exhibition also features Gallagh Man from Co. Galway, and Baronstownwest Man, from Co. Kildare.
These bodies have been analysed in great detail using modern techniques and teams of renowned experts from all over the world. Much has been discovered about the lives they led, and the injuries which caused their deaths. Old Croghan man, for example, was a giant of a man, estimated to have stood approximately 6ft 6ins tall. His soft hands with their well-manicured nails suggest he was a nobleman, a fact which is supported by evidence of a diet consistently dominated by meat. He died somewhere between 362-175BC.
By contrast, Clonycavan man, 2300 years old, was a mere 5ft tall. His diet consisted mainly of grains and plants for the four months prior to his death; before that, he also ate a lot of meat. It is suggested that he may have died in the autumn after a summer diet of fruit, vegetables and grain, before a meat-rich winter diet could be resumed. Interestingly, he had a very distinctive hair style; it was cut to 21/2 cms long at the back, the rest of it 20 cms long, and gathered up into a bunch on top of his head. He also styled it with pine resin which came from trees only found in Spain and southern France, so it would have been expensive to import, suggesting that he too came from wealthy, perhaps noble origins.