A Bog Body from Ballivor, Co. Meath, Ireland

Bog Body – Human Sacrifice – Iron Age Dandy? – Failed King?

Clonycavan Man died from three blows of an axe to his head. A high status individual he used imported hair gel to shape his hair. Subjected to a ritual killing two thousand years ago, Clonycavan Man’s body emerged from the bog in 2003.  Bringing us eye to eye with this individual, the earliest man from the area Noel French set this bog body in the wider context of Ireland and Europe. Clonycavan Man presents the earliest face of a Meath individual, perhaps an ancestor of someone who still lives in the area today.  


Bog bodies have always fascinated me. I was a regular visitor to Gallagh Man in the National Museum before Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man were discovered. Now the museum has an excellent exhibition of four bog bodies entitled ‘Kingship and Sacrifice.’ Another spur to my interest was the poetry of Seamus Heaney who took the bog bodies of Denmark for his theme in some of his early work.

The discovery of Clonycavan Man not far away from my home in Trim was a major event for me. His unusual hairstyle created a fuss throughout the world. The fact that many of the bog bodies show no sign of manual labour and the method of their sacrifice always poses the question of who were these men and why did they die. In this booklet I attempt to answer those questions

I would like to acknowledge the work of experts in this field many of whom are recorded in the bibliography at the end of this booklet. This work would not have been possible without the expertise and thoughts of these fine historians and archaeologists. Fully comprehensive works will be published in time on Clonycavan Man but I hope this booklet will provide enough for the general reader in the meantime.

Thank you to the National Museum of Ireland for permission to reproduce photographs of Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man, to Faber & Faber for permission to reproduce Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Tollund Man”, to the Irish Times for permission to reproduce Kevin Myers “An Irishman’s Diary” and Sínead Perry for her photographs.

This booklet is being published in aid of Coolronan bog which lies northwest of Clonycavan. A local group, the Meath Westmeath Bog Project, are interested in preserving Coolronan bog, its heritage and environment.


Clonycavan Man, an Iron Age bog body, was discovered outside Ballivor, Co. Meath in 2003. Bog bodies are human remains preserved in wetland areas consisting of accumulated acidic deposits of dead plant material. The earliest bog bodies date from the Neolithic period but most bodies fall into two main periods, the Iron Age and late medieval period. Iron Age bog bodies date from the period 400 B.C. to 400 A.D. and are people who were ritually sacrificed and buried in the bog. Many of the bodies discovered are men but women and children were also sacrificed and deposited in water filled peat cuttings.  Most of the bog bodies are naked.

Rivers, lakes and bogs were the site of deliberate deposition for weaponry and personal ornaments during the Irish Bronze Age and these continued to be the site of votive offerings in the Iron Age. Irish bog bodies are part of a custom extensive over northern and western Europe during the Middle Iron Age. The dates for Irish Iron Age bog bodies correlate with the Danish bog bodies and there is a striking similarity in both countries in relation to the methods of death and burial.

Clonycavan Man, one of the elite of his time, was cut down in the prime of life and his head and body displayed signs of a ritual death. This was a planned killing carried out in a specific way. Dating to about 300 B.C. he suffered brutal injuries before his death and the reasons for his selection as a sacrifice are not clear. The most noted feature of his discovery was the gel which was used to style his hair. Not only an important archaeological artefact Clonycavan Man was also a man of flesh and blood, a human being. Clonycavan Man presents the earliest face of a Meath individual, perhaps an ancestor of someone who still lives in the area today.

Bogs and Bodies

Ballivor Bog

The word bog is derived from the Irish word, bog, meaning soft. Bogs are composed of peat which is partially rotted organic material. Peat is brownish black in colour and in its natural state is composed of 90% water and 10% solid material.

Peat bogs develop where the ground is waterlogged. Remains of dead vegetation accumulated in these waterlogged places for thousands of years. As the vegetation grows under these flooded conditions, it dies and accumulates as peat. The water logged ground prevents decomposition, a process which is carried out by micro-organisms, and requires oxygen. As the peat thickens the main source of water and minerals to the plants on the surface is rainfall resulting in the bogs becoming very acidic.

Fens are flat bogs on the edges of lakes and in waterlogged areas. Raised bogs are found in the midlands of Ireland and are dome shaped bogs which develop from fens. Sphagnum moss invades the fen surface and build up layer upon layer of partially decayed material. Blanket bogs occur where there is an iron pan which is an impermeable layer of iron which results in the soil above it becoming waterlogged. Blanket bogs are located in high rainfall areas in the west of Ireland, in low lying areas and on the mountain ranges throughout the country.

For centuries people have harvested turf or peat for fuel. The bogs are cut by hand with special spades into sods which are then dried and used as winter fuel. In recent decades there has been mechanised cutting in suitable bogs. Bogs provide grazing for cattle and sheep.

Peat Being Saved

Bogs are rich in wildlife. The dominant plant on the bog surface is sphagnum or bog moss which was used in World War I as a dressing for bleeding wounds. As bogs receive most of their nutrients from rainwater, food needed for plant growth is in short supply. As a result some species of plants are carnivorous. The sundew plant catches small insects, even dragon flies. In the pools the bladderworth traps small aquatic animals. Many rare and protected species of plant and animal are found on bogs. The Greenland White-fronted Goose relies on wet bogs with ponds for feeding and roosting.

Raised bog formation started at the end of the last Ice Age when the centre of Ireland was covered with lakes. Some bogs were laid down in the Stone Age or Neolithic Age and so at the very bottom of the bog are intact structures and remains from five thousand years ago. In the West of Ireland at the Ceide Fields the farming landscape from 3000 B.C. was preserved under the blanket bog.

Preserved butter is frequently found in Irish bogs. The custom of burying butter in bogs seems to have been known in early times, possibly as early as the sixth century. Burial in the bog would keep the butter as cool as possible. The exclusion of air and the antiseptic qualities of the turf would prevent mould growth.  Butter could have been buried to give it a flavour or to hide it from for animals or for security. Butter may also have been a votive offering to the gods.

For the unwary and uninitiated bogs can be treacherous places. Many travellers vanished while crossing a bog. In the winter and during wet periods bogs can be impassable. Local people spent much time and energy constructing trackways across the bogs so that villages on either side could link up. Trackways were made from planks of wood, or they were made from thin branches that were woven together. In some cases the bogs have grown over the trackways and buried them. A famous trackway at Corlea in Co. Longford dates to 148 B.C. This too may have been a votive offering to the gods.

Corlea Trackway

Buried trees and forests are common and widespread in Irish bogs. The preservation of wood in the bog gives the timber strength and durability. Some of the wood, bog oak and bog pine, is used to produce carvings and ornaments.

In 2006 the Faddan More Psalter was discovered in a bog near Birr. The vellum manuscript of psalms dated from the eighth century and its papyrus-lined cover provided evidence for contact between Ireland and the Mediterranean region in that period.

Peatlands originally cover 17% of the land area of Ireland primarily in the centre and west of the island. Today only a fifth of the original area remains for conservation. The introduction of large scale extraction from the 1940’s onwards resulted in the bogs coming under threat.  Much of the exploitation has been concentrated on the Midland raised bogs where 90% has been cut away. Peat is cut mechanically to produce fuel for electricity and as a garden product. Blanket bog in the west is in danger from drainage, grazing and afforestation. Much of the European bogs have been cut away and exhausted. Only Finland in Europe has more bogs in proportion to land area. In Ireland regulations have been introduced by the European Union in order to preserve portions of the uncut bog.  

Towards the end of the Irish Bronze Age bogs were actively growing. In Iron Age Europe boglands played a significant part in daily life. Bogs offered protection from attack but were obstacles to travel. During the Iron Age human activity extended onto the bog surfaces. Agricultural settlement often focussed on the edges of drier bogs, which provided useful spring grazing. Iron ore was recovered from the bogs and the charcoal used for the smelting process may have been obtained from the turf.

Bogs may have been sacred landscapes, watery places with interfaces or portals to the other world. Bogs offered clear views of the sky which was not available to those settled in the wooded lowlands. They might have also been places to be feared, dangerous places with mists and lights from bog gases. Where land meets water, bogs were regarded as places of sacrifice. Similar ritual burials may have taken place in rivers or lakes or in other soils for which no archaeological remains have been uncovered.

Up to seven hundred bodies from bogs have been discovered in northern Europe over the past two hundred years. A large proportion of bog bodies are late medieval or modern. A number of bog bodies were the result of accidental drowning. In recent times new finds have become rarer as the heavy machinery used to harvest the peat has resulted in bodies being dismembered and in some cases destroyed.  The number of new bodies uncovered has also been reduced as the amount of boglands has decreased as a result of the harvesting of peat.

Bodies are preserved in the bogs as a result of anaerobic conditions, which prevent bacteria from growing, high acidity and cold conditions. The bodies sank into the bog quickly thereby shutting off oxygen from micro-organism which would cause decay. Because of the preservative qualities of the bogs soft organ tissue such as stomach and contents, hair, nails and clothing are preserved and available for forensic analysis. Preservation of internal organs may depend on the prevailing temperatures at the time the body was placed in the bog. Under warm conditions bacteria present in the gut at the time of death can cause severe degradation of the internal organs. Further preservation of flesh occurs where tannins are present which cause the flesh to be preserved through a natural tanning process. One piece of a bog body may be better preserved than other parts. Sphagnum moss produces sphagnan, which may have anti-microbial properties. The acid conditions may lead to decalcification of the bones and teeth, so the bodies appear to be eroded or flattened by the pressure of the overlying peat.

European Iron Age Bog Bodies

The first recorded discovery of a bog body was in Holstein in 1640, with Ireland’s first recorded discovery some one hundred and forty years later when a skeleton was discovered at Drumkeragh bog, Co. Down. Bodies in good state of preservation have been recovered from bogs throughout Denmark, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Britain, Norway and Sweden. The oldest bog body discovered is Koelbjerg Woman, from Denmark, who died around 8,000 BC. Her body was originally in open water which was later covered by peat bog.

Bog bodies are rare discoveries. Many finds are partial or poorly preserved. The last major European find prior to Clonycavan and Oldcroghan Man in Ireland was at Lindow, outside Manchester in the early 1980s. At the time some archaeologists speculated that there would be very few new discoveries as most of the major bogs had been harvested. Up till the discoveries in Ireland in 2003 the best preserved bodies had been uncovered in Denmark.

Lindow Man

The prime British example of a bog body is Lindow Man. In 1983 a woman’s skull was discovered at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, north-west England. Police initially thought the skull was that of a local woman who had disappeared in 1960. While in prison on another charge, her husband, Peter Reyn-Bardt, had boasted that he had killed his wife and buried her on the edge of the bog. When confronted with discovery of the skull he confessed to the murder of his wife. It was not until the trial was well underway when the skull was radio-carbon dated and discovered to be nearly 2,000 years old. Reyn-Bardt was convicted on the strength of his confession alone. His wife’s body has never been found. The skull was given the name, Lindow Woman.

In August 1984 a well-preserved male body, was discovered near the Lindow find site. Dating to 2 BC-119 AD Lindow Man’s death may have coincided with the Roman invasion of Britain in 55-54 BC. The radiologists of Middlesex Hospital who examined the body nicknamed him ‘Pete Marsh’, a name which proved popular with the tabloid newspapers. Lindow Man was in his mid-twenties, well groomed and bearded. His stomach contents included a finely ground cereal grain which was possibly an unleavened barley bread. His stomach also contained pollen from mistletoe, a poisonous plant, associated with the pagan druids. Lindow Man had been struck on the head with such force that chips of his skull were forced into his brain and a molar was cracked by the force of the blows. His throat had been slit and there was a leather garrotte, tightened to a slip-knot, around his neck. The body was naked except for a fox-fur armband. His neatly trimmed nails indicated a high status individual. In 1987 a second naked body was extracted from the same bog, Lindow Man II.

Tollund Man

The bogs bodies from Denmark include the famous Tollund Man and Grabaulle Man. Tollund Mandates from 375-210 BC and was discovered in Bjeldskovdal in 1950. He died aged thirty to forty and had a leather noose around his neck indicating death by hanging. The body was found lying on his side with arms bent and legs drawn up, naked except for a leather cap and belt. Much of his body had decayed but his head was intact including the very short stubble on his chin and upper lip. His face bore a peaceful expression. Analysis of his intestines indicates his last meal consisted of a gruel consisting of barley and seeds available in winter or early spring. His head and one foot were boiled in paraffin to preserve them but his body became dehydrated and disintegrated. In 1987 the entire body was recreated in an exact replica for display at Silkeborg Museum.

Seamus Heaney was particularly taken with the discovery of the bog bodies in Denmark and wrote a number of poems using the bog bodies as metaphors for what was happening in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Tollund Man By Seamus Heaney   I
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.   (By kind permission Faber & Faber Ltd)  

Grauballe Man was discovered in 1952 in Nebelgard Mose, a small bog in Jutland. The subject of a ritual killing Grauballe Man was aged in his mid to late thirties and was about 5ft 10 inches tall. He had been beaten and clubbed before his throat was cut. His face bore a terrified expression. His perfect nails indicated he had not done manual work, suggesting he was one of the elite in his society. His stomach contained grasses infected with ergot, a fungus which causes fits, mental disorders and gangrene.

Grauballe Man

In 1879 the body of an adult woman was found in a bog near Ramten, Jutland, Denmark. The body, known as Huldremose Woman, met her death between 160 BC and AD 340. She had a bone comb and beads, items which would have accompanied women of the highest social rank in conventional burials.

Elling Woman, dating to about 205 BC, was discovered in 1938 at Bjeldskovdal Bog, west of Silkeborg, Denmark, less than one hundred metres from where Tolland Man came to light twelve years later. Elling Woman had braided hair and was wrapped in one sheepskin cape with another covering her legs and feet. She wore a woven belt around her waist. Hanged with a leather thong, a V-shaped furrow was clearly visible in her neck. The leather belt that was used to hang her survived, it had a sliding knot, making it suitable for execution purposes.

Nederfrederiksmose Body, also from Denmark, discovered in 1898, was the first bog body to have been photographed before being removed from its find spot.

A number of bog bodies were discovered in Germany. Windeby Girl was found in northern Germany in 1952 with a woven band covering her eyes. This woollen band is presumed to have been a head band which fell down over her eyes. Aged 13 to 14 when she died, no wounds were found on her body. Initially Windeby Girl was thought to have been an adulteress who had her head shaved although a recent study by Dr. Heather Gill- Robinson of North Dakota State University has suggested that Windeby Girl is actually a young male who lost part of his hair either due to decomposition or during excavation.

In 1948 a decapitated head wrapped in deerskin was discovered south-east of Osterby in northern Germany near the border with Denmark. Osterby Man’s head was that of a man of fifty to sixty years of age who had been killed by a sharp implement. The man’s hair was gathered and fastened in knot. This style of knot is known as the Swabian knot. His neck hair was cut short.

Bodies have also been uncovered in the bogs of the Netherlands. Werdingerveen Men were two bodies discovered in the Netherlands in 1904 and were originally thought to be man and woman but have since been identified as two men.  One of the bodies has a large wound in his abdomen.

Yde Girl

Yde Girl, aged about sixteen years, died 54 BC to 128 AD. Her body was dredged from a raised bog near the village of Yde, Drenthe, Netherlands in 1897. When she died this area would have been on the borders of the Roman Empire. Her body was badly damaged by the peat dredger’s tools. The woollen band around her throat suggested that she died by strangulation. A wound near her left clavicle was probably inflicted with a knife. One side of her head was shaved before her death. With the girl were the remains of a large and rather worn cloak. Scans have shown that she suffered from the spinal condition known as scoliosis.

 Irish Bog Bodies

The earliest reference to a bog body from Ireland comes in the late eighteenth century. In 1780 the clothed body of a woman was discovered in a bog at Drumkeeragh, Co. Down.The following yeara plait of hair from the body was presented toLady Moira, the wife of the local landlord.  She and her husband launched an investigation into the bog body. The body was that of a small woman, fully clothed but some of the best clothing had been stolen. The body was likely to date to the post medieval period. The woman was dressed in a woollen costume, fragments of which are now in the National Museum, Dublin.

During the eighteenth century three bodies were discovered, forty five in the nineteenth century, sixty two in the twentieth century and five in the first five years of the twenty first century.

Irish bog bodies date from Neolithic period to medieval dates, with the majority belonging to a late medieval or modern date. A woman’s body, dating to 1570 AD, was discovered in Meenybraddan Bog, Ardara, Co. Donegal in 1978, the last major find before 2003. Many bog body discoveries went unreported. In previous times bodies may have been uncovered and reburied when there was no scientific resources available to carry out proper research. There are surprising few finds from Munster and along the Atlantic Coast from Mayo to Cork. Nine bodies have been dated with certainty to the Iron Age.

In the past decade there have been a number of bodies or parts of bodies discovered in midland bogs. A female body discovered at Derrycashel in early 2005 was dated to the Middle Bronze Age and appears to have been a formal burial. The Derrycashel bog body was found in a peat-harvesting machine which was being dismantled at the Bord na Móna depot near Ballyleague, Co. Roscommon. The body was in a fragmentary state. The bodyof an adult male was discovered in Derryvarroge bog, Co, Kildare in 2007 and was dated to 228-343 AD. A bog body was discovered in Cashel townland, Cul na Mona bog, Co. Laois in 2011. It was presumed the body was a male. Cashel Man was embedded in the bog which was being harvested for peat. The body up to the shoulders was present. Having searched the milled peat the face and parts of the skull were recovered. The body had cut marks indicating that it was a ritual killing. A quantity of hair from the victim was also found which could provide evidence of diet. This bog had previously yielded leather shoes, bog butter and a Bronze Age axe. The bog lay on the traditional boundary of the kingdoms of Laoighis and Uí Buide. 

Oldcroghan Man

Oldcroghan Man bog body, 2003:14

Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Oldcroghan Man came to light in May 2003 just twenty five miles away from the find at Clonycavan. A find of a well preserved bog body such as Clonycavan Man excited archaeologists nationally and internationally and then to have a second body uncovered just three months later created a major stir.  The body was discovered at Oldcroghan, Co. Offaly and dated to 362-175 BC. Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man were possibly contemporaries. The head, lower limbs and lower part of Oldcroghan Man’s body were missing. Aged in the mid-20s, his arm span indicates that he was 191 centimetres (6ft. 3½ inches) tall. There were two cuts where his nipples had been, the removal of nipples made him ineligible for kingship. Subjects sucked at their king’s nipples to indicate submission.  It is unclear as to when the nipples were removed, before or after death. He had been stabbed in the chest and had a cut on his arm, possibly a defensive wound. His head had been hacked off. Scars on his lungs showed that he had pleurisy. There were no scars on his body except for two small cuts to one of his hands.

His hands are clasped in fists. His fingernails were perfectly preserved, polished and manicured, suggesting he was a man of high status, untroubled by manual labour. His fingerprints, which were recorded by the Garda Technical Bureau, are similar to modern fingerprints. His body was found naked apart from a plaited leather band on his arm with copper alloy fittings. Two withies, ropes made from hazel, were pushed through holes in his upper arms, possibly while still alive and probably to stake him into the bog.

The high level of nitrogen in his nails indicated that he had a protein-rich diet and probably died in the winter when meat was the main source of food. Food in his stomach revealed that his last meal was finely milled flour and buttermilk, perhaps a ritual meal. An absence of autumn fruits or summer vegetables suggested that Oldcroghan Man died in winter or spring.

Gallagh Man

A body found in 1821 at Gallagh, near Castleblakeney, Co. Galway was radiocarbon dated to 130 BC – 50 AD. The body of Gallagh Man lay at the depth of three metres in the bog. The body lay on its left side, slightly flexed at the waist and knees. It was clothed in a deer skin cape which extended as far as his knees. The deer is sometimes used to represent the goddess of sovereignty. The cape was tied at the neck with a band of willow rods. At each side of the body a wooden stake was placed at an angle. Each post was about two metres long and pointed apparently with a hatchet. The presence of wooden stakes prove that it was a deliberate burial as this practice is known from Denmark and is part of a ritual to pin the body firmly in the bog. He had long black hair and a beard. A band of hazel wands at his throat may have been an actual or symbolic garrotte. The body was re-buried and dug up on a number of occasions. Gallagh Man was allowed to dehydrate and most of the body’s hair and its cape disappeared over time.

A body unearthed at Baronstown, Co. Kildare in 1953 was dated to 200-400 AD. Baronstown Man’s body had laid in an east-west direction. The body was wrapped in an inner coating of textile and an outer one of leather. A layer of sticks had been laid over the body. The skull was missing and it is thought that the head was removed as part of the burial ritual. The man was aged between twenty-five and thirty years of age. The body was not well preserved.

In 1959 a woman, positioned with a block of wood at the her head and a large stone placed over the bones of her pelvic area, and an infant was discovered at Derrymaquirk, County Roscommon, and dated to the Late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. Animal bones and a deer antler were also uncovered. This appears to have been a formal burial rather than a sacrificial burial as in the case of the other Iron Age burials. It is also a female burial while the other Irish Iron Age bog bodies are predominately male.

 Clonycavan Man

Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Clonycavan Man was discovered on 21 February 2003 on a tram screen at Ballivor Bord na Móna Works by operatives after it had been removed in a block of peat extracted using a mechanical digger. The head, torso, upper abdomen and upper arms were in a good state of preservation. The forearms, hands and lower abdomen were missing believed to have been hacked off by the machine. An archaeological examination of the probable find spot did not uncover any additional material however the body may have been moved by machinery.

The body was found at NGR: N665540, in Clonycavan townland in the civil parish of Killaconnigan, Co. Meath. The find site was on the borders of the bog, a common site for Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age habitation. As depicted in the mid seventeenth century maps of Sir William Petty Clonycavan would appear to have been an island of good land within the bog. There is a large expanse of bog in the western half of the townland which continues to the Westmeath border and beyond which is currently being exploited by Bord na Mona. In 1835 one quarter of the civil parish of Killaconnigan was recorded as bog. Ballivor bog, covering an area of 630 hectares, is located south of the R156 road which connects Ballivor and Raharney. It is surrounded on its eastern, southern and western side by farmland and on its northern side by Carranstown bog. It was on the eastern border of the bog that Clonycavan Man was found. In the nearby townland of Coolronan textile, human bones and hair rolled into a ball were discovered in a bog in 1952 (NMI 1952:10). Bog butter was also uncovered at Coolronan in 1952. (NMI: 1A/186/1952). A part of a bog body, possibly medieval, was discovered in a nearby bog at Kilwardan, Clonard, in 1978. A partial bog body was uncovered at Rossan bog in south-west Meath, in late 2012.

Following the discovery a two year forensic and scientific study began on Clonycavan Man. Up to thirty researchers from six different countries were involved in the study working in conjunction with staff from the Irish Antiquities Division and Conservation Department of the National Museum. Their work was captured in an hour-long BBC Timewatch documentary. The team that investigated Clonycavan Man included: Miranda Aldhouse Green, Don Brothwell, Stephen Buckley, Marie Cassidy, Joann Fletcher, Eamonn P. Kelly, Isabella Mulhall, Rolly Read, Tim Taylor, Andrew Wilson and Caroline Wilkinson.

It is important that bog bodies are kept hydrated when they are uncovered as the remains will shrink if allowed to dry out.  When examining Clonycavan Man researchers were restricted to two hour periods and the body was sprayed with de-ionised water every twenty minutes.

Following examination the body of Clonycavan Man was impregnated with a water soluble wax solution, then freeze dried and finally surface dressed with a water soluble wax solution. The drying process took approximately six weeks. The body then become part of a display entitled ‘Kingship and Sacrifice’ at the National Museum of Ireland which opened in 2006.

Clonycavan Man was dated to 392-201 BC. Of slight build he was initially thought to have been a small man of 157 cm (5ft 2 inches) tall but later interpretation suggests a taller man as his body may have shrunk in the bog. He may have been as tall as 175 cm (5ft 9 inches) tall. He was over 25 years of age and naked when discovered. Analysis of hair showed that for the four months prior to his death his diet was rich in plant material and vegetables, suggesting that he died in the summer or autumn before the onset of the meat-rich winter diet. His sacrifice might have coincided with a festival such as Lughasana or the autumnal equinox. Clonycavan Man had been in excellent health with no disease or medical problems.

His body and face were contorted and flatted due to the weight of the peat and his skull had dissolved in the bog. Professor Caroline Wilkinson  and her team of forensic anthropologists and forensic artists used a state of the art computer system to recreate the facial appearance of the man. The reconstruction displayed a forward-facing profile with a weak chin, not unlike a modern face.

Reconstruction of Clonycavan Man’s head

State Pathologist, Marie Cassidy’s post mortem revealed that this adult male was killed by three blows by a heavy cutting object such as an axe, to the head, plus one to his chest and was also disembowelled. Three was a sacred number for the Celts and other non-‘Celtic’ people. The different blows may have represented the three different forms of the goddess to whom Clonycavan Man was being sacrificed.  The first blow may have caused unconsciousness. The second blow was made across the front of the head. Then a third blow was inflicted across the face, over the bridge of the nose and running under the right eye. The nose had been literally crushed and the bone had been broken. There is also a sharp cut running across the cheekbone under the eye. One side of his head had been shaved, possibly to prepare for the three blows. From the angle of the blows, it seems that Clonycavan Man was kneeling in front of his attacker. The most common injuries suffered by the sacrificial victims are blows to the head and these blows are usually not made by a sword or an axe, as these would give a well-defined incised wound, but by relatively blunt, heavy objects.

Clonycavan’s nipples were pinched and then sliced. Oldcroghan Man suffered similar injuries. Removal of nipples meant the man could not be king in this world or the next. The body suffered a 40cm long cut to his abdomen which suggested disembowelment. One of the Bourtanger Men from the Netherlands had been cut open and his innards torn out.

Clonycavan Man had a distinctive hairstyle; at the back of the head the hair was cut to about 2.5cm long with the rest of hair about 20cm long gathered into a bundle on top of his head. His hair was extremely fine. The hair was swept back from the front to form a sort of a bun on top of his head, in a tall arrangement, perhaps to increase his stature. Fragments of a hair tie were discovered which had been used to keep the hair in place, wrapped around the hair to secure it on top of the head towards the back. Clonycavan Man used a type of hair gel; plant or vegetable oil mixed with pine resin; perhaps to give him the impression of height. The pine resin came from trees which grow in south western France or Spain demonstrating the existence of a network of trading routes linking Ireland to the continent. The imported hair gel could mark Clonycavan Man out as one of the wealthy of the period. This elaborate hairstyle could have been part of the ritual to prepare him for sacrifice. Yde Girl and Windeby Girl both had part of their hair cut off at the time of their deaths. The cutting of hair may have been a sign of shame and impropriety.

Clonycavan Man had short stubble on his upper lip and longer stubble just under his chin, perhaps a moustache and goatee beard. The stubble could have resulted from part of the ritual where the victim stopped shaving days in advance of his death. Gallagh man is described as having what seemed ‘like a fortnight’s growth’ of facial hair while Lindow Man had a beard, trimmed relatively short.

Kelly suggested that the death of Clonycavan Man was connected to kingship and boundary rituals. In early medieval period Clonycavan was on the borders of the kingdoms of Midhe and Brega but these boundaries were not in existence at this time of his sacrifice with the kingdom of Midhe being established in the middle of the fifth century AD. Many boundaries are inherited and so there could have been a frontier where Clonycavan Man was sacrificed. Clonycavan could have been near the boundary of La Tène influenced society and the society still influenced by the late Bronze Age. These were the two major regionally powerful groups existing in the Early Iron Age, one in the north-east of Ireland and the other in the south-west. Clonycavan could have been a transitional area.

National Museum of Ireland – now home to Clonycavan Man


Many of the Iron Age bog bodies appear to have been murdered and certain elements indicate that the bodies were the result of human sacrifice. Probably the earliest case of sacrifice in the world is that of two girls found at Sigersdal, near Copenhagen, killed about 3500 BC. One of them was about sixteen while the other who was about eighteen still had a cord around her neck.

The absence of struggle or resistance in almost all cases suggested a ritual death. In the case of Oldcroghan Man it would appear that he raised an arm to defend himself from being stabbed in the lung.

Many of the victims were horrifically tortured before ritual sacrifice and burial. A common feature of the bodies is evidence of triple death; stabbing, hanging and drowning. The nature of the deaths by multiple methods may suggest sacrifice to three gods rather than one god. Green contended that the violence was an important factor in the sacrificial process. Different methods were used to traumatize and torture these victims. A consistent feature is an overkill of violence. Violence is dramatic, tense and climatic and may have been used as a source of energy. Stabbing involved the spilling of blood. Bog bodies are generally naked. Celts went naked into battle carrying only their weapons but this sacrifice was not a battle and the men carried no weapons. Consignment of bodies to watery places such as bogs may have had symbolic significance of halting decay and providing preservation. The bodies were submerged into the bog or waterholes quickly as there is no evidence of damage by carrion insects or birds.

A sacrifice was a positive event, a community celebration; there was a process related to it; pre-kill, kill, post kill. As far as Clonycavan man is concerned there was the preparation, perhaps a special meal, letting his stubble grow, the kill and the violence involved and then the after-kill internment in a bog hole.

Sacrifice was carried out to acquire a benefit: the destruction or surrender of something valued for the sake of something higher. The human sacrifice was an exchange of life for supernatural assistance. This holy gift, dedicated to the supernatural powers, must be physically and metaphorically removed from the human world to that of the divine. Items deposited in lakes and rivers were sacrifices. There may be sacrifice victims buried in sites, other than bogs.

Someone important had to be sacrificed if the sacrifice was to bring the desired results. Status, gender, age and physical condition were important factors in selecting a candidate for a ritual murder. Many of the bog bodies were members of the privileged social group. Clonycavan Man was one of the wealthy elite as he was able to use imported products such as the hair gel. Many bodies show little trace of manual work so these were not labourers. There are no injuries to the body, broken bones or scars, which could have resulted from military training or warfare so these were not warriors.  Lindow Man and Oldcroghan Man both had polished and manicured nails.

Recent research seems to suggest that some of the wounds and damage sustained by the bodies may have occurred after death, due to the weight of the bogs or during the excavation of the bodies.

Clonycavan – as an island in the bog in a map from the 1660s.

There may be different motives for these sacrifices. Sacrifice may involve a request to the spirits for something to happen, it may be a response to a crisis or a thanks offering. The sacrifice bridges the world of the human and the otherworld. The person sacrificed must be separated from the real world. The act of slaughter and ritual makes the sacrifice acceptable to the supernatural recipient. The violence involved may play an essential role in the potency of the sacrificial gift. Bog bodies did not decay and this may have been a punishment or a sacrifice paid by the victim who was unable to pass to the spiritual realm as his body was preserved by the bog chemicals. These bodies were treated differently from the normal burial practise of the time which was cremation.

The association of bog bodies with ritual ceremonies in Ireland can be traced as far back as 1781 when Lady Moira recovered clothing from the body found in Drumkeeragh Bog. She speculated that the body related to the time when the druids performed their ceremonies.

Boundary markers is one suggestion for these sacrifices. Kelly suggested that Clonycavan Man was uncovered at the border between the kingdoms of Midhe and Brega. Clonycavan was on the boundary of the kingdom of Ui Laoighre. The find site is also on the borders of the modern counties of Meath and Westmeath.  The practise of deposition of items on boundaries stretches back into the Bronze Age. Bogs form natural boundaries in the landscape. The bog bodies uncovered at Kinnakenelly, Galway; Derrymaquirk, Roscommon; Baronstown West, Kildare; Gallagh, Galway and Clonycavan, Meath are all located on boundaries. Another forty locations of bog body parts at boundaries are recorded. All nine Irish bog bodies dated to the Iron Age were discovered at boundary areas. So far no research has been carried out into this theory with regard to the locations of bog bodies in other parts of Northern Europe.

Objects found in bogs, fields, etc People often find things of ancient times in bog and field. One time about twenty years ago Pat Dixon of Ballivor and some other men were cutting turf in the bog. Not too far down they dug up a firkin that was covered with a lid of wood to fit. They took it up and when they left it down on the ground it fell to pieces. Inside it was evenly packed tight with butter. The butter was hard and remained in shape though the firkin was broken. The butter was very yellow and much like cheese but when one of the men tasted it it was fresh as any other butter. Schools Folklore Collection 1937/8 Coolronan National School National Folklore Collection, UCD.

Other ritual depositions seem to support this suggestion. Nine samples of Iron Age bog butter were found on or in close proximity to boundaries, five near barony boundaries and three near parish boundaries. One example of bog butter was discovered in the same bog as a bog body at Baronstown West, Co. Kildare. Butter could have been a food of the elite. Kelly also suggests that bodies may have been dismembered to be interred at various locations along tribal boundaries. Metalwork, including weapons and personal ornaments, has also been discovered at Irish boundary sites. The placing of bodies or offerings at a boundary may serve a protective function, the ancestors protecting the tribe’s lands.

As part of the inauguration ceremony where the new king marries the earth goddess, it would appear that objects associated with the kingly inauguration were buried on tribal boundaries as a statement and definition of the king’s sovereignty. The removal of the nipples of Clonycavan and Oldcroghan Man may have rendered them ineligible for kingship. The suckling of a king’s nipple was the sign of submission. There may have been large-scale tribal re-organisation and territorial expansion during this period and this may have served to necessitate the marking of boundaries. The sacrifices may have been high ranking hostages or rejected rulers.

P.V. Glob interpreted the bog bodies of Denmark as sacrifices to the fertility goddess, Nerthus. Kelly suggested that these sacrifices were made to the god of fertility as part of a king’s inauguration ceremony to ensure a good harvest of grain and milk throughout his reign. The bodies may be linked to sovereignty and kingship rituals particularly the marriage of king to the earth goddess:– a ritual marriage between king or priest and the earth. If the king grew old or his marriage to the earth goddess proved unsuccessful and famine and illness resulted then the king might be sacrificed to allow a new king succeed and attempt a more successful marriage with the goddess. Clonycavan Man was found only sixteen miles from the royal site of Tara and Kelly contended that Clonycavan Man may be a royal sacrifice connected to Tara.  Oldcroghan Man was discovered near Croghan Hill, an inaugural place for the kings of Uí Failge in medieval times. There was a tradition of the ritual killing of kings in Ireland. An alternative view is that the seed or body was buried and slept in the earth, the goddess, the sleep of the dead but in the spring it woke and sprang to new life with the promise of rich harvest.

The Iron Age burial of bog butter, quern stones and the sickle at Lisnacrogher, Co. Antrim, are all reminders that a central function of the marriage of the king and the earth goddess was to ensure the fertility of the land and the well-being of the people, who were dependent for survival on reliable yields of corn, milk and milk products. These products also give an important context to the final meal of Oldcroghan Man which consisted of cereals and buttermilk.

Paleobotanical evidence indicates a climatic deterioration in the latter half of the second millennium BC. Average temperatures decreased and rainfall rose. There seems to have been some sort in normal weather patterns. Worsening weather and climate might have been the spur for human sacrifice. A succession of poor harvests may have resulted over a short period of time. However the bodies do not seem to have suffered from malnutrition and in fact the bog people seem to have enjoyed an elite lifestyle with no manual labour. A society that can afford to maintain such a group is unlikely to have problems providing food. It has been suggested that the last meals of many of the Danish bog bodies were of poor quality grain mixed with seeds of what would be regarded as weeds. This might reflect an agricultural society on the edge of famine. However victims were not in poor health and were not suffering from malnutrition.

There are early Irish references to human sacrifices at festival times, in particular to the god Crom Dubh, who is associated with Lughasana, the harvest festival. Ross and Robbins suggested that Lindow Man was a druid sacrificed to celebrate a festival. He had received the burnt portion and so was marked for sacrifice. They suggested that Lindow Man was sacrificed at the Celtic Festival of Beltaine, in May, at the outset of an unpredictable summer. Perhaps bog sacrifices are associated with solstices or other annual events.

It has been suggested that the victims were killed as a punishment for crimes thereby serving the two purposes of ridding the community of undesirable elements and providing a victim to appease the gods. Tacticus, the Roman historian, ca. A.D. 55-120, stated that in Germanic tribal areas ‘traitors and deserters are hanged in the trees, cowards, shirkers and sodomites are pressed down under a wicker hurdle into the slimy mud of a bog’. Caesar writing c. 58 BC said that the Gauls believed that the gods preferred it if the people executed had been caught in the act of theft or armed robbery or some other crime. Windeby Girl was thought to have been an adulteress who had her head shaved. In the later Irish Brehon Laws criminals were punished by fines and capital punishment was not an option. The bog bodies did not decay, trapping the individuals partly in the physical world and partly in the spiritual world which could have served as a punishment for a crime they committed while they were alive.

A high proportion of bog bodies have physical defects, spinal abnormalities or foreshortened limbs. Lindow Man III showed the presence of a sixth digit immediately below the thumb. Yde Girl suffered from mild scoliosis with an abnormal curvature of the spine. This girl probably had a somewhat irregular gait. Oldcroghan Man was a giant at 198cm. The victims may have been selected because they were different or alternatively these deformities may have singled them out a special individuals touched and beloved by the gods. A number of the victims may have had mental difficulties and this marked them as different or touched. Gadevang Man, 480 – 60 BC, survived a trepanation operation, which might indicate that he suffered from migraine, epilepsy or depression. Trepanation may have been performed to release demons and evil spirits from the head. Grauballe man’s stomach contained grasses infected with ergot, a fungus which causes fits, mental disorders and gangrene.

Grigsby suggested than Lindow Man met his death enacting the role of a dying-and–resurrecting god, akin to Attis or Osiris, a theory supported by the fact that chemical analysis on his skin seemed to provide evidence that Lindow Man went to his death painted a suitably vegetal green colour.

The bodies could have been royal hostages or political rivals which were executed to ensure the compliance of subordinate lords or the elimination of rivals for the kingship. Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man had their nipples cut. Traditionally one of the ways of showing submission to a king was nipple sucking.  This injury could have marked them as rejected rulers.

The Roman writer, Diodorus Siculus, said the Gauls, Celts, kept their prisoners of war for five years and then impale them to honour the gods. However if the bog bodies were warriors then it would be expected that they would have had more scars and injuries to their bodies. The fact that Celtic warriors took the heads of their enemies which could explain why some of the bodies were decapitated. In early medieval times hostages were taken to prove good faith. The executed hostages could have been deposited on boundaries, providing protection from the hostages’ tribe.

Clonycavan Man’s wealth might have marked him out as different from his society. Murder or mugging has been advanced as a reason but the ritual burial and the fact that the bodies had not experienced manual work, would seem to dismiss this theory. The execution of criminals or accidental drowning could also be ruled out for the same reason. It has been suggested that bodies of war dead could have been given a ritual burial after death but many of the bog bodies show no evidence of training as warriors. It has been suggested that the victims might be homosexuals or prostitutes or social deviants. The bodies could have been thanksgiving offerings in return for the bounty of the turf for firing and bog iron for iron.

Clonycavan man is one of the Iron Age bog bodies of northern Europe linked by their ritual death and burial. Clonycavan Man provides additional information on this phenomena. All the men suffered brutal ritualistic deaths. The fact that Clonycavan Man was able to live to his mid-twenties and not perform manual labour or take part in military training suggests that the society he belonged to was quite sophisticated and well developed.

Like many other bog bodies Clonycavan Man was a member of the social elite, perhaps a priest-king. A religious role is more likely as a king might have taken part in military training and his body might bear the marks of such training. His death may have been dedicated to the goddess of fertility, as a sovereignty ritual, to mark a boundary or simply because he was smaller than other males. Is it possible that the men were raised specifically for sacrifice or were they of the priestly class who would not have done manual work or taken part in military affairs? They were people set apart from society – special, chosen people.

How it might have happened?

An Irishman’s Diary by Kevin Myers

On the last night of his life, Clonycavan man watched the evening star hanging like a lantern in the southern sky. At dawn, he knew, he would be punished for his failure to cause the crops to grow and the kine to calve, writes Kevin Myers.

He had been born into royalty, and with that privilege came the burdens of responsibility. Failure in that could only mean the ultimate sacrifice.

And he had failed, as he had always known he would. He was an unlucky man, a comical little antic whom no one respected. He should have been born a simple herdsman, destined to spend his days minding the long-horned cattle in peace on the bogs, away from the stern warrior caste who now held him in such contempt. For he was certainly no natural leader. His councils were usually bedlam, his pronouncements often interrupted by jeering, ruffianly young upstarts.

They laughed at his hair too, though it had cost him many gold coins to buy the resin from the wily Phoenician trader who berthed in the shallows beside the river estuary, three days’ walk away. He thought the hair-ointment would give him height and status, but it had achieved the opposite effect: as he strode through his royal entourage he could hear giggles behind him, erupting sometimes into mutinous guffaws.

Nor had his reign been accompanied by luck. Winters had been cold, summers wet, the autumn yields parsimonious. The wheat rotted in the fields, the cattle had the murrain. Famine came, and the young and old died in their peat-walled dwellings. Women cursed him. Children spat. He put more resin in his hair, as the Phoenician had advised him to, promising that it would make him taller, more kingly, more manly when he coupled with his harem.

But it did no such thing. Even his women mocked him, and found succour in one another’s arms. Finally, he had led the cattle-raid on the kingdom on the far side of the Red Lough, but fatally he had hesitated as he led his men towards the cattle-brattice, so allowing the defenders to close the furze-shutters. From the safety of that enclosure they were able to fire arrows at the now defenceless attackers.

His slua had retreated from the hail of missiles, losing many dead. Even more had died of their injuries on the long haul back home. Back in his royal enclosure, he found plague had taken half of his harem.

The night after his return, he had woken to the tickle of a broadsword on his throat. He was then bound with hazel branches and led to the stone altar of the high priest, certain of his fate.

“I am innocent,” he said. “I did my best to bring sun in the summer and soft, southern breezes in the winter. I made due sacrifices to the gods. I read the runes of the night-sky, and studied the entrails of slain oxen. All told me that my kingship was good, and if my people were patient, my rule would prosper.”

The priest was derisive and impatient. No traders came their way anymore, he said, because it was known this was an impoverished kingdom led by a weak and powerless king. They must placate the gods by slaughtering him, and burying his body in the bog-which-preserves, so that though he had been killed, he would never know death, and would forever be denied the glories of paradise. By that sacrifice might his people win the favour of the god of wheat and the god of kine and the sun-god in the skies.

He knew the fate that awaited him. He had witnessed his uncle being put to death in his neighbouring kingdom for a comparable failure. Unlike him, his uncle had been a giant of a man, and his agonising end had lasted days.

They had made holes in his arms and pulled branches through them. They had gouged out his eyes. They had cut off his nipples. When he pleaded for death, they kept him alive, until finally there was hardly any life left in that whimpering, wheezing body. Ritual demanded that he not die, but be killed; and so he was, before being despatched to the shameful limbo of a bog-grave.

Clonycavan man wept in terror as he contemplated the last ordeal of his life, to be followed by an eternity of his tortured soul being marooned in his incorruptible body.

Briefly, he slept, and his dead uncle came to him in a dream, whispering, “May no good come to this island which murders and buries the innocent. May its curse be that those who torture their victims over days and bury the corpses in bogs are duly rewarded beyond all measure, and thus war, murder and secret burial become a regular season here, just as in other, happier lands, golden harvests regularly ripen in the fields, and trees grow heavy with luscious fruit.” So Clonycavan man woke from his dream, and before going to his terrible end, he laid the curse on the island, just as his uncle had instructed.

In 2003 – 2,300 years later – the ground yielded up the dead. His body, and his uncle’s, were separately uncovered in their midland bogs, while the remains of Jean McConville were also finally found in the limbo-grave made for her by the IRA. Meanwhile the barbarian responsible for her abduction, torture, murder and secret burial had, like all such heathens on this accursed island, been rewarded with mighty honour and high renown, in strict accordance with Clonycavan’s ancient curse.

© 2006 The Irish Times – 12th January 2006


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