Eight-Foot-Tall, 1,600-Year-Old Statue of Pagan Deity Found in Ireland

The well-preserved wooden sculpture may have been part of a ritual site where animal sacrifices were carried out

Wooden sculpture
The Iron Age sculpture is one of only a dozen of its kind found in Ireland to date. Archaeological Management Solutions

Researchers have recovered an eight-foot-tall, 1,600-year-old wooden sculpture from a bog in the Irish townland of Gortnacrannagh. As Pat Flynn reports for the Clare Herald, Archaeological Management Solutions (AMS) discovered the artifact while conducting excavations ahead of a road construction project.

The Iron Age figure was made from a split oak trunk. It has what appears to be a human head and a series of horizontal notches carved along its body.

“The Gortnacrannagh Idol was carved just over 100 years before St. Patrick came to Ireland; it is likely to be the image of a pagan deity,” says dig leader Eve Campbell, an archaeologist at AMS, in a statement. “Our ancestors saw wetlands as mystical places where they could connect with their gods and the Otherworld,” a supernatural realm in Celtic mythology.

Campbell says the team also found animal bones and a ritual dagger at the site, suggesting that animal sacrifices may have taken place there.

Per the Irish Examiner’s Greg Murphy, only 11 similar sculptures have been found in Ireland to date. The Gortnacrannagh statue is the largest discovered so far. Ancient wooden artifacts are frequently found in bogs because the wet, anaerobic conditions help preserve them.

“The lower ends of several figures were also worked to a point suggesting that they may once have stood upright,” says Cathy Moore, a specialist in wooden artifacts, in the statement. “Their meaning is open to interpretation, but they may have marked special places in the landscape, have represented particular individuals or deities or perhaps have functioned as wooden bog bodies, sacrificed in lieu of humans.”

Cathy Moore with idol
Wood specialist Cathy Moore says sculptures like these may have marked special places in the Irish landscape. Archaeological Management Solutions

According to the History Blog, the statue was found face down and broken into two parts, indicating that it was intentionally “decommissioned” and possibly offered as a sacrifice. While the other 11 similar sculptures were found by accident and removed from their context before archaeologists could investigate the sites, the additional objects found near this figure help establish its likely ceremonial use. Radiocarbon dating places the wooden sculpture’s creation between 200 and 400 C.E.

The bog where the figure was discovered is less than four miles from Rathcroghan, a complex of about 240 excavation sites representing almost 5,500 years of settlement. Per Atlas Obscura, the landscape includes large Iron Age structures, as well as Oweynagat, or “Cave of the Cats,” which is believed to be the point of origin of the Celtic Samhain celebration. The cave was once known as a gateway to the Otherworld.

Rathcroghan is also said to have been the site of the capital and palace of Queen Medb. According to the Ulster Cycle, a group of legends set in the first century B.C.E., Medb was a powerful warrior who at one time ruled much of Ireland.

AMS staff, together with University College Cork’s Pallasboy Project and the University College Dublin Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture, are making a replica of the statue to display at the Rathcroghan Center. Meanwhile, University College Dublin conservator Susannah Kelly is beginning a three-year effort to preserve the original artifact, which will eventually be transferred to the National Museum of Ireland.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.