The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin is free to visit and houses a stupendous array of archaeological finds from across the Republic of Ireland dating from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages. Here, I want to present some reflections on the ‘Kingship and Sacrifice’ exhibition having visited the museum for the first time in almost two decades. Focusing on the Irish Bronze Age and Iron Age, this exhibition features the remains of three bog bodies at present. These are remains of well-preserved human remains of select individuals who had been transported to, killed violently and ritually at, and then interred into, bogs in the Irish landscape.
Bog bodies are among northern Europe’s most well-known and memorable ‘immortals’ in death. Found during peat-cutting since the 19th century but subject to careful techniques of analysis particularly from the mid-20th century onwards, they afford the sense of being uncanny voyagers through time. Still, while some display the appearance of peaceful sleepers, most exhibit clear evidence of the long temporal journey they have taken. For instance, the remains are discoloured and partially preserved, squashed and distorted, fragmented and wizened. Moreover, we do not know their names and there remains considerable discussion regarding the circumstances of their killing and deposition. These are unquestionably once people yet simultaneously unquestionably cadavers ‘miraculously’ transported from the distant past with arrested decomposition.
This distinctive situation is because the anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions of bogs. As with other parts of northern England, the Netherlands, northern Germany and southern Scandinavia – human hair, flesh and organs can be subject to eerily high degrees of preservation when a body is immersed in a bog. Moreover, while the preservational qualities of bogs is only now understood scientifically, it seems that prehistoric people recognised their qualities in the past. Placing human bodies, and sometimes other items including food, weapons and horse gear, in bogs can be considered a deliberate mechanism of fixing these individuals, not only in space – in a numinous and liminal landscape – but in time as well. The selected places of deposition were quite possibly in areas regarded as borderlands being tribal territories, and preserved in their state of deposition they might have been considered to live on, inhabiting these environments.
Through bog bodies, we can today come face-to-face with both the individual visages and bodies of long-dead individuals as well as with indicators of their grisly violent demise at the hands of other persons unknown. They exhibit the cruelty and beauty of the past in equal measure. Set apart in their distinctive temporality and corporeality, they are thus distinguished today as particularly ‘special’ in terms of their preservation and treatment in archaeological writings and visualisations, as well as their place in the museum.
In the Dublin exhibition, each bog body is sensitively displayed within spiralling walls: the artefacts and interpretation which provide context are kept on the outside. As one descends down each ramp into the internal space, all text and images are left behind; one enters into a private communion with each bog body, situated in a central display case which reaches up to the ceiling so one cannot look over the bodies. Visitors can circulate around each bog body, gazing at it from all sides. On the far side of each space from the entrance there is a bench where one can sit and look at each body. Perhaps one is being encouraged to consider these bodies as ‘windows’ onto imagined past worlds. Or else maybe these seats foster consideration on the life and demise of that specific individual. They could also be a place where one can reflect upon mortality, past, present and future: including one’s own.
The first one meets is Baronstown West Man. Found in 1953, this young man was interred in the Early Iron Age (c. 400-350 BC) to a depth of c. 1.9 m in the bog, dressed in textiles and with a leather cloak, and covered with interwoven birch or hazel sticks to hold him down.
Next, one encounters Conycavan Man, found in 2003 and dated to the Early Iron Age (c. 400-200 BC). Killed by multiple blows from an axe or similar sharp-bladed weapon aimed at the back of his head, he was deposited in the deep bog in Ballivor, Co. Meath.
In the third space contains Cavan Man, the oldest Irish bog body: dating to c. 2000-1800 BC: the Early Bronze Age. It is also the most recently discovered: 2011. Only his arms and upper torso have survived. Again a young man, he bears wounds suggesting deliberate killing and the spot marked with two hazel rods.
The exhibition advocates the theory of sacrificial kingship to explain the killing of these individuals. What interests me here, however, is that each body comes closer to the present in terms of discovery, creating a cumulative effect of knowledge and experience of past lives.
Given their special character, considerable attention has gone into how they should be displayed with respect and recognition of the societies these individuals derived from. This strategy of display very much reminded me how the Danish Grauballe Man was exhibited when I saw him at Moesgaard Museum in 2012. One could look down at him from high above, and there learn about his discovery, analysis and conservation, before heading down a ramp into a lower chamber free of interpretation to stand or sit and gaze at his well-preserved remains. The Dublin display thus follows a comparable strategy and with a similar, if more modest descent to afford the sense of going down into the bog itself. The interpretation-free communion following a spiral down a ramp from an interpretation rich external space needs careful exploration.
For each of the three bog bodies on display, the museum not only avoids displaying such well-preserved remains to those who would rather not view them. In addition, it simultaneously affords these bodies with a special, and even sacred, aura.
There is one further aspect to their mode of display that I hadn’t noticed in previous interpretations. A happenstance of their mode of display means that, when one sits to look at the bog bodies in the benches provides within the inner space, one is looking over at the remains nearly side-on, squashed flat and preserved, human yet alien. As one does this, one doesn’t just see the traces of a past life and their death in the bog, one also witnesses two images of oneself hovering immediately above the bog body. Of course, the reflections of oneself derive from the two panes of display glass: one closer and in front of the prehistoric body, one behind on the far side of the cabinet. Yet this interaction between bog body and display glass only operates when one is seated and gazing at the remains.
My point? I’m not claiming this was an intentional dimension of the display, but it is telling. Encountering bog bodies in Dublin is about coming face-to-face with the past and its most stark traces of mortality in its most uncanny and abject form, but also it involves coming face-to-face with onself through the juxtaposition of two images of each us every time we repose and look at one of them.