Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Friday, 20 January 2006

'These were horrific torture techniques'

By Isabella Mulhall
National Museum of Ireland

They were stunning finds: two Iron Age "bog bodies" found in the Republic of Ireland. All the evidence points to the individuals being the victims of a ritual sacrifice. Isabella Mulhall, who coordinated the project to investigate the remains, explains how her team went about its work.

Isabella Mulhall and Rolly Read (Image: National Museum of Ireland)
Isabella Mulhall; Rolly Read, NMI's head of conservation; and the remains of Old Croghan Man
In 2003, I was given the role of looking after peatland archaeology at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. I had only been in the role for a few weeks when the first of the bog bodies came to light, so I suppose I was thrown in at the deep end, so to speak.

It was a great surprise to everyone when Clonycavan Man was discovered, particularly to other specialists that had dealt with bog bodies whose discovery dated back to the 1950s and earlier.

The first thing we did was to secure the site in County Meath where the remains were found, making sure there were no other body parts. That process had just finished when the second bog body - Old Croghan Man - was found.

It was a great shock to find two so close in time and in space - they were found just 25 miles apart.

Our next step was to draw up a preliminary list of specialists to join the group that would work on the remains. I did this by going through previous publications on previous bog bodies from Ireland, Britain and further afield.

The bodies turned up very close to each other

I also attended scientific conferences, to try to persuade other experts to join our project.

People were very willing to lend their expertise and to refer us to other specialists. Without their help, the project would not have taken off as it did. Eventually, we built a team of about 35 people from six different countries to work on the remains.

During the first phase of the project, the team carried out extensive photography, and also drawing, recording and measuring of the remains; and making anatomical and pathological descriptions.

After that phase was complete, we carefully took samples from the bodies for analysis. We made sure that sampling was kept to an absolute minimum.

Those that we did take were used for radiocarbon dating and palaeodietary analysis, as well as analysis of the gut contents and hair, amongst other items.

We then carried out CT and MRI scans on Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man. CT scanning is very much like carrying out a virtual autopsy; you can examine the skeleton, the ligaments, the muscles and so forth.

(Image: National Museum of Ireland)
Once the remains had been fully examined, they were conserved by treating them with polyethylene glycol and then freeze-drying them for several weeks.

Any samples taken after these processes will no longer be pure; so prior to these treatments, we bagged some fresh samples from the bodies which could be used for future research.

Bit by bit, our investigation was building a complete picture of these two men. We discovered the age of these individuals, and many insights into how they lived.

For example, we discovered that Clonycavan Man had his hair coated with a form of resin which acted as a hair gel. And he had a very full set of teeth.

We were able to establish the sequence of traumas the men experienced before they died.

Old Croghan Man was stabbed and had a secondary defence wound on his arm where he had tried to protect himself. He was decapitated following several blows to his neck, and his body was severed below the torso.

Old Croghan Man was bound to restrain him

He has one hole in both his upper arms where a rope, or withy, was fed through to restrain him. That was a very poignant reminder of the torture he endured.

Clonycavan Man also had several types of trauma to his body. These levels of trauma before death are common to other bog bodies from north-western Europe.

These horrific torture techniques were sometimes meted out in combinations and go beyond what is necessary simply to kill the person.

Most of the bodies that have been found are in their 20s, though older and younger examples have been found. Many archaeologists have put forward theories about the ritual significance of these killings.

Mr Ned Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, has put forward his own theory that these are sacrifices to the gods of fertility by kings to ensure a successful reign.

He has noted that these bodies - and artefacts - turn up on ancient boundaries.

(Image: National Museum of Ireland)
The bodies give us a glimpse of a different age
There was obviously some great significance attached to these boundaries, whether they were political boundaries or associated with sovereignty or kinship rituals.

It gives us an insight into the kind of society in which these men lived.

Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man will be put on display for an exhibition called Kingship and Sacrifice which runs from May at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

The story of The Bog Bodies is also told in a Timewatch programme which will be shown on BBC Two at 2100GMT on Friday, 20 January.

Isabella Mulhall is Coordinator of the Bog Bodies Project, Irish Antiquities Division, National Museum of Ireland.



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See the Iron Age bodies found in the bog



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