Laois bog body prompts call for Laois museum

The discovery of a 3,000 year old woman’s body in Cashel Bog has raised calls for a county museum in Portlaoise.

The discovery of a 3,000 year old woman’s body in Cashel Bog has raised calls for a county museum in Portlaoise.

Michael Parsons of Laois Heritage Society who is delighted with the significant find sees a need for the museum.

“It’s a very exciting discovery. It does underline the great culture and history of Laois. We would love to see a county museum in Portlaoise, so that people could see culture like this on an ongoing basis,” he said.

Laois County Council has plans for a culture and heritage centre in Portlaoise town centre. It will also include a new library.

County Manager Peter Carey was unavailable for comment on how such a centre could be used to record the story of last week’s historic discovery.

The cultural centre was earmarked for publically owned land in Tower Hill.

The preserved body was found last Wednesday evening in the bog just outside Portlaoise, and was moved to the National Museum last Friday. It had been carefully buried in a leather bag in a foetal position, leading experts to believe it could be an important Bronze Age burial, and not a sacrifice from the more recent Iron Age as was initially thought.

The head and torso of the body had already been scraped up off the Bórd na Móna bog by a milling machine and piled with peat in a ridge, ready to be bagged as garden peat. Following the find, archeologists immediately searched the ridge, finding pieces of skull, bones, and the leather bag.

The remains were spotted by Bord na Móna worker Jason Phelan, just before he was about to drive over them in his milling machine. A bog history enthusiast, he told the Leinster Express about the moment, which he described as better than winning the lottery.

“I saw what looked like a ripped leather car seat sticking up. I got out, had a look, had a tug, saw the shape of legs, that was an interesting moment,” said the Abbeyleix man, whose father Ger also worked for Bórd na Móna.

Following protocol, Mr Phelan alerted his regional operations leader Liam Fox, who called the National Museum and the Gardaí to the scene.

Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the museum, Ned Kelly arrived on site on Thursday to begin careful measurements and drawings, during which the remains were kept moist with distilled water. They were removed last Friday evening to the National Museum of Irish Antiquities where a barrage of tests will begin, taking years to complete.

“We’ve been very lucky, it’s unusual given the technology of harvesting peat, to get a body as intact as this. It’s looking increasingly from the Bronze Age, but we won’t know until carbon dating is done,” said Mr Kelly.

He explained the importance of the 500 acre Cashel bog to our ancestors.

“This is a tribal border between the kingdom of Laoighis and Uí Buide. Ancestors were buried on the boundary, to protect from invaders. The bog was considered to be the entry into the otherworld, so bogs on boundaries were even more powerful. The placing is highly significant, There have been lots of other finds here, ritual deposits made to the deities such as bog butter, a bronze age axe, and leather shoes,” he said.

The leather bag had opened over time, leaving the lower body exposed to the bog, thus preserving it, as bacteria which attacks tissue, leather and wood cannot survive in acidic bogland. This process has led to incredibly well preserved bodies such as ‘Old Croghan man’ found in Co Offaly in 2003, whose manicured hands even had intact fingerprints.

The Cashel bog, which lies between Portlaoise and Abbeyleix, has been harvested by Bórd na Móna since the 1970s for peat moss products, while some family turf plots are still in operation. With plenty of years left in the bog, it is sure to yield more historic treasures in time.