Within the National Museum of Ireland, the permanent exhibition known as Kingship and Sacrifice is a grim collection of withered human sacrifices who were preserved by the natural peat in which they were buried, including the Cashel Man, the oldest bog body ever found that still had flesh on its bones.
In 2003, a team of workers was operating a harvesting machine that chewed through the Irish moors to extract peat, the dense, earthy material left behind in bogs as plants decay. That day, along with the heavy peat they were gathering, the team found something else tangled in the moor’s churned soil. A corpse lay before them, cut in half by the machine’s workings but recognisably human, with face and hair intact.
The peat bogs of Ireland and other European countries have yielded human remains for well over a century. These bog bodies, some thousands of years old, have been naturally preserved by the unique conditions of the bogs, which preserve skin and internal organs. Some have even been intact enough to have their fingerprints taken.
A total of 17 bog bodies have been found so far in Ireland; 9 men, 1 child of undetermined gender and 7 women. Many were skeletonised and some deteriorated soon after discovery and no longer exist. A small number had been buried formally, but most bore all the hallmarks of ritual sacrifice described above. Except for the child, all were estimated to be in their late teens or twenties at the time of their death, which is not all that surprising considering that the life expectancy of ancient people would have been much, much shorter than today. Some of the bodies were seemingly high ranking members of society, and may have been sacrificed because of poor harvests, lost battles and the like.