“Night at the Living Bog” sounds like a great horror movie title, but it’s actually the job description of Irish archaeologists working nights and days at a “living bog” in County Roscommon where their diligence in the muck has rewarded them with a 1,600-year-old wooden religious idol predating St. Patrick and Christianity in Ireland. What’s a “living bog”, you ask? For the answer, we must travel to the River Suck (Beavis and Butthead fans – insert your “Heh, heh!” here).
“Our ancestors saw wetlands as mystical places where they could connect with their gods and the Otherworld.”
Dr. Eve Campbell is the director of a team from the Archaeological Management Solutions (AMS) studying a bog that is in the path of a road project. This particular wetland occupies 343 hectares between low hills in the headwaters of the River Suck (the name is derived from the Irish word suca or succín which means "amber" or “sap”) near the western border of landlocked County Roscommon. This is a raised bog or “living bog” – an acidic wetland lacking minerals and in grave danger of becoming extinct due to peat cutting (harvesting). The Living Bog project was formed to preserve Ireland raised bogs because of their biodiversity, and for flood control and control of carbon emissions. They are also known for preserving wooden and other organic artifacts that would otherwise have rotted due to exposure to air.
"The Gortnacrannagh Idol was carved just over 100 years before St. Patrick came to Ireland — it is likely to be the image of a pagan deity."
Dr. Campbell is referring to a 2.5 foot (.75 meter) wooden ‘pagan’ idol found in a raised bog in Gortnacrannagh. The idol has a human-shaped head, notches in its body, and appears to have been carved from a split oak trunk. (See it here in the Irish Examiner.) Its size makes this the largest wooden Iron Age idol found in Ireland to date.
“The discovery of animal bone alongside a ritual dagger suggests that animal sacrifice was carried out at the site and the idol is likely to have been part of these ceremonies.”
The Gortnacrannagh Idol is currently being preserved at the University College Dublin. The Gortnacrannagh raised bog, despite this find, will still be removed by the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge Road Project – which was responsible for the discovery of the bog in the first place. In fact, Deirdre McCarthy, resident archaeologist with Roscommon County Council, is happy to have road construction beyond the obvious traffic reasons because “Road projects such as the N5 provide a significant opportunity for the investigation of our archaeological heritage.”
That’s one way of looking at it. With so many people outside of Ireland under the mistaken impression that its history began with St. Patrick, its important to find and study artifacts of previous cultures and so-called ‘pagan’ religions. Dr. Ros Ó Maoldúin of AMS tells Ancient Origins that the size of this idol may indicate it was a marker for a special place, while others point to the daggers (photos here) found and think figure represented a person sacrificed by proxy. Not so ‘pagan’ after all, are they?
Destroying the raised “living” bog still ‘sucks’.