Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Bodies in the Museum

29 August 2012

Growing up, I remember my school library having this small but informative book on bog bodies. It was hidden amongst a collection of other books of weird historical facts, well away from the history section, in an aisle of the library few people frequented, and I liked it that way.
I got it out repeatedly, for the bog bodies intrigued me. Not so much because they had benefited from a natural form of mummification, but because of what their preserved state could tell us about the lives of them and their communities, and because of the mystery around the ritual behind their deaths.
Preserved bodies can tell us enough about who they were, from the age and gender, determined the bones, to the social status and occupation through the bones and the grave goods. They also answer the 'how' and the 'when' but they fail to address the 'why', and sometimes this is the most intriguing question.

As a result when I reached Dublin, one of the first places I visited was the archaeological branch of the National Museum of Ireland where they have a beautifully displayed collection of bog bodies.

Due to the sensitive nature of the bodies, each one is cocooned within a spiral room, allowing a flow of visitors in and around each body, but also keeping them from those who are not so comfortable staring at flat mangled human bodies, no matter how old.

Baronstown West Man, Co. Kildare. Early Iron Age (200-400 AD)
These bodies have been preserved by the unique environment found in bogs. The highly acidic water, presence of peat and sphagnum moss, low temperature and lack of oxygen act together to preserve the skeletal remains and/or flesh for centuries until they are accidentally unearthed, often as a result of peat digging.

Clonycavan Man Co. Meath. Early Iron Age (392-201 BC)
With such well preserved organs, we are able to see the damage done to Oldcroghan Man's nipples (though the cause of this is still debated), see the scars on his lungs (possibly caused by Pleurisy), analyse the contents of his stomach to determine that his last meal was wheat and buttermilk, even though analysis of his hair indicates that his diet in the last four months of his life was high in meat.

Oldcroghan Man Co. Offaly. Early Iron Age (362-175 BC)
Having being immersed in the dark waters of the bogs, the skin takes on the colour and texture of tanned leather, and like Oldcroghan Man, can look remarkably like a leather bolero jacket excepting the presence of hands and perfectly preserved fingernails.

Unfortunately, now I want to read that book again. Or go one better.

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