The bodies in the bogs

Bog pool beneath Errigal Mountain, County Donegal, Ireland. Photo by Gareth McCormack.

Bog pool beneath Errigal Mountain, County Donegal, Ireland. Photo by Gareth McCormack, reproduced with permission. Clicking the link takes you to Gareth’s site and more outstanding landscape photography.

In an ancient bog at the foot of a fairy-haunted hill, peat-cutting work lays bare the body of a giant. Carbon dating suggests that the man died at the height of the Iron Age, around 275 B.C.; forensic examination shows that he died hard, stabbed through a lung and then decapitated with an axe. After killing him, his executioners chopped his body in half at the diaphragm, and at some point, perhaps while he was still alive, they also inflicted two pairs of unusual wounds on him. Deep cuts almost severed both his nipples, and his arms were vigorously pierced so that twisted lengths of hazel withy could be threaded through from side to side, presumably to pinion him. After that, his mutilated torso was sunk in a pool where, over the years, bog moss grew up to cradle and cover him, until he became part of the mire itself.

As the dead man’s assailants were most likely perfectly aware, the unusual properties of the bog and the moss combined to preserve his remains. The sour waters of high bogs are as acidic as vinegar, and they support practically no life, yet they contain bog oak – which deeply tans organic matter – and sphagnum moss, which uniquely binds both nitrogen and oxygen, inhibiting bacteria. Trapped in this nutrient poor, anaerobic environment, human remains are preserved almost intact; bones may be leeched and gradually demineralise, but flesh and wood, horn, fur, hair and textiles can and do survive for millennia. So when ditching work uncovered the torn remains that archaeologists now call “Old Croghan Man” outside the little village of Croghan, in County Offaly in the heart of Ireland, investigators could still make out the pores on his skin and inspect the well-manicured fingernails that showed that he had done no manual work and hinted at high status. They could calculate that he had once stood 6 feet 5 inches [1.95m] tall: a great height now, freakish for his day.  And they could feel reasonably certain that that height had been made possible by an unexpectedly rich diet, predominantly comprised of meat. Continue reading

A visit to the underworld: the unsolved mystery of the tunnels at Baia

Baiae and the Bay of Naples, painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1823, well before modernization of the area obliterated most traces of its Roman past. Image: Wikicommons.

Baia and the Bay of Naples, painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1823, well before modernisation of the area obliterated most traces of its Roman past. Image: Wikicommons.

Now revised and updated to September 2016.

There is nothing remotely Elysian about the Phlegræan Fields; nothing sylvan, nothing green. The Fields, which lie on the north shore of the Bay of Naples, are part of the caldera of a volcano that is the twin of Mount Vesuvius, the destroyer of Pompeii, a few miles to the east. The volcano is still active, but, today, its most obvious feature is this barren, rubble-strewn plateau. Fire bursts from the rocks in places, and clouds of sulphurous gas snake out of vents that lead up from deep underground.

The Fields, in short, are hellish, and it is no surprise that they have always been associated with all manner of strange tales. Most interesting, perhaps, is the myth of the Cumæan sibyl, who took her name from the nearby town of Kyme – Cumæ – a Greek colony that flourished in about 550 B.C., when the Etruscans still held sway much of central Italy and Rome was nothing but a city-state ruled over by a line of tyrannical kings.

Sulfur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy.

Sulphur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy.

The sibyl, so the story goes, was a woman named Amalthæa who lurked in a cave on the Phlegræan Fields. She had once been young and beautiful –beautiful enough to attract the attentions of the sun god, Apollo, who offered her one wish in exchange for her virginity. Pointing to a heap of dust, Amalthæa asked for a year of life for each particle in the pile, but (as is usually the way in such old tales) she failed to allow for the vindictiveness of the gods. Ovid, in Metamorphoseshas her lament that “like a fool, I did not ask that all those years should come with ageless youth as well.” Instead, she aged but could not die. Virgil depicted her scribbling predictions of the future on oak leaves that lay scattered about the entrance to her cave, and states that the cave itself concealed an entrance to the underworld.

The best known – and from our perspective the most interesting – of all the tales associated with the sibyl is supposed to date to the reign of Tarquinius Superbus – Tarquin the Proud. He was the last of the mythic kings of Rome, and some historians, at least, concede that he really did live and rule in the 6th century B.C. According to legend, the sibyl travelled to Tarquin’s palace bearing nine books of prophecy that set out the future of Rome. She offered the set to the king for a price so enormous that he summarily declined – at which the prophetess went away, burned the first three of the books, and returned, offering the remaining six to Tarquin at the same price. Once again, the king refused, though less arrogantly this time, and the sibyl burned three more of the precious volumes. The third time she approached the king, he thought it wise to accede to her demands. Rome purchased the three remaining books of prophecy at the original steep price.

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