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The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.


‘Bogland’ (Heaney, 1969, l. 16-19).

Stereotypically speaking, the image of a bog might recall a stagnant place of death and decay, where matter disappears into the earth. This is somewhat accurate, but unsurprisingly there is more to the existence of them than meets the eye. Though bogs seem like places that are more about the latter end of the life/death ‘timeline’, and the disappearance of things, they not only hold the potential to cultivate but also preserve. They are rather like museums, with undiscerning curators, randomly embalming the lost, deposited and dying – from psalm books to slaughtered men. Faddan More Psalter, a medieval manuscript found near Birr, County Offaly, Ireland, in 2006 and dated to approximately 800CE (National Museum of Ireland, 2023) is one such example. There is a variety of speculation as to how the manuscript came to rest in the bog, with many theories linking its whereabouts to the Viking raids of monasteries within Ireland at the time. Whether it was dumped after a raid, or quietly left in its hiding place by a despairing monk, it has been ‘hailed’…‘as the greatest find ever from a European bog.' (Cowell, 2006).


In order to fully examine the potential that bogs hold, we need to consider that many of us are educated to view life and death, existence, and non-existence as binary. Events of existence are most easily rationalised when they follow a linear sequence and fall on one side of the fence. But to understand bogs and our human relationship with them, we have to set this aside and look past any preconceptions about how things – animate and inanimate – behave in such a unique environment.


Generally, bogs are a combination of peats (layers of decomposing compressed plant matter – a very early stage in the formation of coal) and water (mostly from precipitation). The lowest layer of ground below the bog is usually made up of clay, which seals the ecosystem. Due to the combination of high acidity soil, tannins and lack of oxygen, decay is much slower than in most other environments. The soil and water is nutrient poor, but some varieties of plants grow. Peat bogs are also ‘carbon sinks’, so they absorb more carbon dioxide than they release, not only contributing to their own ecosystems, but sustaining the surrounding environments. Bogs are places of renewal and reinvention – but always set within specific variables in their chemical composition. Matter changes at vastly different paces, staying seemingly frozen in time, or indeed transforming, growing, and decaying into new forms of life.


The Lindow Man is an example of the bog’s exceptional ability to preserve beyond the point at which we would expect organic matter to disappear. Found in 1984 at Lindow Moss, a peat bog near Manchester, the upper half of this body was preserved to the point that hair and skin remained. It was found via radiocarbon dating that the man had been killed somewhere between 2 BC and AD 119: so the body was approximately 2000 years old. It is unsurprising that this discovery, and others from Lindow Moss, provoked in-depth scientific investigation and emphasised just how precious bogs are as an environment of preservation. The National Geographic briefly describes the preservation of bodies found in bogs: ‘Sphagnum moss interacts with peat and water to create an “antiseptic” bog environment that one expert calls “the secret behind the bog bodies.” (National Geographic, 2023). Melanie Giles in her book ‘Bog Bodies’, describes them too: ‘The slightly glossy, madder-brown hue produced by the peat thus lends such remains a sense of antiquity, even permanence.’ (Giles, 2020, p.52). This permanence that Giles describes is interesting both on a practical and imaginative level. When bodies are discovered in bogs  and eventually ‘recovered’ to be preserved, the environment that they are placed in is really a simulation of their previous home: the only difference is that these conditions are achieved artificially, and in a way that allows convenient access and observation. She goes on to say, ‘The bog appears to have stopped decay, or at least to have stilled it. The things caught in its waters appear to stand outside of time – although we know they are dead these ancient bodies somehow defy mortality. For some, this near-living afterlife creates a sense of immortality, of hope even, in the face of our own finitude.’ (Giles, 2020, p.52).


So, bogs have the unusual, apparently conflicting properties, by virtue of their chemical and physical composition, of being able to both break matter down and to preserve it in parallel. Like sap from trees trapping insects before later turning into fossilised amber, bogs preserve as well as destroy life, perfectly enough for us to be able to encounter our ancestors and the creatures that lived around them, long after death has apparently destroyed them both.


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