3,000-year-old butter found in Kildare bog
Date: 19 August 2009
By Conor McHugh
AN OAK barrel, full of butter, estimated to be roughly 3,000 years old has been found in Gilltown bog, between Timahoe and Staplestown.
The amazing discovery of the barrel, which is being described by archaeology experts in the National Museum as a "really fine example" was found by two Bord na Mona workers.
The pair, John Fitzharris and Martin Lane, were harrowing the bog one day in late May when they noticed a distinctive white streak in the peat.
"We got down to have a look. We knelt down and felt something hard and started to dig it out with out bare hands," John explained.
"We could smell it. And it was attracting crows," he added.
What they found was an oak barrel, cut out of a trunk, full of butter.
It was largely intact, except for a gash towards the bottom of it caused by the harrow. It was head down, and had a lid; something that has excited the archaeologists.
"We couldn't believe it," said Mr Lane.
The barrel is also split along the middle, which is common with utensils filled with butter found in the bogs. A conservator at the National Museum, Carol Smith, told the Leinster Leader that the butter expands over time, causing the split.
The barrel is about three feet long and almost a foot wide, and weighs almost 35kgs, (77lbs).
The butter has changed to white and is now adipocere, which is essentially animal fat, the same sort of substance that is found on well-preserved bodies of people or animals found in the bog.
The two men put the barrel in the cab of their tractor and brought it back to their base.
"We put it in a black plastic bag," Mr Fitzharris explained.
And last Tuesday in the Conservation Department of the National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks, the two men were reunited with the barrel in the company of Monasterevin man and one of the museum's keepers, Pádraig Clancy, conservator Carol Smith, and the Leinster Leader.
Mr Clancy was contacted by Bord na Móna's archaeological liaison officer who reports to the museum on finds like this. He travelled to the site and took the barrel to Collins Barracks.
"It's rare to find a barrel as intact as that," Mr. Clancy explained, "especially with the lid intact, and attached. It's a really fine example."
He estimates that the barrel is approximately 3,000 years old, from the Iron Age.
At the moment it is being dried out by staff at the Conservation Department. Once dry it will be soaked in a wax-like solution which preserves it.
"At 35ks, it's a pretty big one," Ms. Smith explained. Other examples of bog butter they showed the Leinster Leader tended to be less intact and much smaller.
It is thought that the butter was put in the bog for practical reasons, rather than ritual.
"There are accounts dating back to the 1850's with people used to wash their cattle once a year in the bog and then put some butter back into the bog. It was piseogary," Mr. Clancy explained, adding that the butter was usually "stolen by the following week!
"It's open to interpretation, but we're inclined to think that 3,000 years ago they were just storing it."
Such a large amount of butter, he estimated would have probably been the harvest of a community rather than an individual farmer.
Ms. Smith and Mr. Clancy explained that bog butter has been tasted before, "but not by us!
"It's a national treasure, you can't be going hacking bits of it off for your toast!" Ms. Smith joked.
"It's important to say that we have a good relationship with Bord na Mona," Mr. Clancy explained. "They are one of the better organisations for reporting finds."
And the bogs of Kildare have yielded quite a lot of artefacts from the past, including spear heads, pottery and bodies.
"We've found no body parts in Gilltown bog," Ms. Smith said, before adding, "but here's hoping!"