Cashel Man: Ireland's Oldest Bog Body

On the afternoon of Wednesday 10th August 2011, Bord na Mona worker Jason Phelan discovered a bog body while operating a milling machine in Cashel bog, Co. Laois. The discovery was investigated over a four day period by a team of archaeologists and conservators from the National Museum of Ireland, assisted by Bord na Móna staff.

Bog Body

The body was in the middle of the bog, and at least two meters of peat had been harvested from the location. The naked body was lying on the right side with the legs tightly flexed. Orientation was N-S with the head to the south. The head, neck and left arm were removed by the milling machine but some remains of these were recovered from milled peat including parts of the mandible and teeth, ribs, clavicle, vertebra, skin and hair.

Bog Body

Explaining Cashel Man

It appears that the body had been placed on the bog surface, possibly in a pool, and two hazel rods marked the place of deposition. The remains are those of a young adult male and wounds noted on the body suggest that one is dealing with a victim of human sacrifice. Injuries noted include a long cut on the lower back and a broken arm. The areas of the body that would have been targeted to inflict fatal injuries such as the head, neck and chest were too damaged by the milling machine for a determination of the cause of death to have been made. Earlier reports based on the initial pathologist’s examination, which suggested the presence of axe wounds on the back and a broken spine have now been revised. It is now thought that these represent damage caused by the milling machine and by natural compression in the bog.

Handling the bog body

How old is the body?

One of the hazel rods yielded a radiocarbon date of 3605±30 BP 95.4: (2 sigma) cal BC2033- 1888 while the body itself was 3678±31 BP 95.4: (2 sigma) cal BC 2141-1960. This showed that Cashel Man lived and died in the Early Bronze Age around 2000BC. This surprising result was confirmed when radiocarbon dating of the peat on which the body lay also provided a date of around 2000BC. Although skeletonised human remains of greater antiquity have been found in bogs, such as a 5000 year old skeleton from Stonyisland Bog, Co Galway, the body of Cashel Man is the oldest fleshed bog body to have been found anywhere. Hitherto the earliest dated Irish find of a fleshed bog body was Derrycashel Man, Co. Roscommon which dated to around 1431–1291 BC, during the Middle Bronze Age.

Bog Body

How prevalent was Bronze Age human sacrifice?

In Ireland, the ritual killing of young men was previously known to have occurred during the Early Iron Age and the discovery of an Early Bronze Age victim, apparently killed in accordance with the same ritual, brings the practice back in date by at least a millennium and a half. The place of deposition of the body of Cashel Man is in a bog on the border of a territory (Fearann Ua Leathlobhair) that is overlooked by and contains Crosy Duff Hill (Cros Dubh) the probable place of inauguration of the regional kings of Laois (Laoighis). This mirrors closely the location at which Oldcroghan Man, an Iron Age bog body, was discovered in a bog on the boundary of the territory of Tuath Cruachan, overlooked by and containing Croghan Hill, inauguration place of the kings of Offaly (Uí Failge). Other Iron Age bog bodies also seemed to have been placed in proximity to important boundaries. It has also been noted that votive finds of objects such as feasting equipment, weapons, regalia and attire, and objects relating to equestrian procession also had a strong tendency to be found in boundary locations. This gave rise to the theory that these votive deposits and Iron Age bog bodies were related to kingship and sovereignty rituals. The Cashel bog body suggests a ritual of kingship that extended back at least as far as the Early Bronze Age. As this tradition survived in many of its essential aspects down to the destruction of the Gaelic way of life at the end of the Middle Ages, this suggests a continuous kingship tradition of extraordinary conservatism and remarkable antiquity.

Bog Body
The Body in the Bog

Photo credit: 360 Productions. All other photos ©NMI.

Learn More: Body in the Bog Documentary

A BBC4 documentary, 4,000 Year Old Cold Case: The Body in the Bog, aired on 28th November 2013. It followed Ned Kelly's forensic investigation, posing various theories about the find in the process.  

Find out more about Bog Bodies on our Kingship & Sacrifice page

Watch a presentation by Ned Kelly about Iron Age Bog BodiesLinks to external website

 
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