When law enforcement officials investigated the body of a teenage boy found in a bog in Northern Ireland, they weren’t sure whether the remains belonged to someone recently deceased. Parts of the body’s skin were intact and “as pink as yours or mine,” Nikki Deehan, a detective inspector with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, tells the Financial Times’ Jude Webber. “The kidney was malleable to the touch.”
Officials then learned that the remarkably well-preserved remains are actually between 2,000 and 2,500 years old.
Police were first called to County Londonderry’s Bellaghy Bog in October, when a civilian noticed human bones sticking out of the peat. Given the state of the remains, the “Bellaghy Boy” was initially treated like a potential crime scene.
“On initial examination, we couldn’t be sure if the remains were ancient or the result of a more recent death,” says Deehan in a statement from the Police Service. “Therefore, we proceeded to excavate the body with full forensic considerations in a sensitive and professional manner.”
Forensic anthropologists determined the boy was likely between 13 and 17 years old, though the cause of death remains mysterious. Because the body was so well-preserved, researchers at Queen’s University Belfast’s 14Chrono Center were able to conduct radiocarbon testing—which found the teenager died around 500 B.C.E.
“There was nothing to indicate it was ancient,” Deehan tells the Financial Times. “We were obviously gobsmacked.”
The Bellaghy Boy now belongs to a class of human cadavers known as “bog bodies,” which have been found in Denmark, Germany, England, Ireland and the Netherlands. As Smithsonian magazine’s Joshua Levine wrote in 2017, “These are men and women (also some adolescents and a few children) who were laid down long ago in the raised peat bogs of Northern Europe.” Bog bodies are remarkable for their state of preservation: The best-conserved example, the 2,000-year-old Tollund Man, even retained his facial hair.
These discoveries are made possible by the chemical processes that occur in a raised bog: Few minerals, cold temperatures, little oxygen and high levels of acid work together to preserve a corpse placed inside. Conservation is also aided by the excretions of sphagnum moss, which extracts calcium from bones and halts bacterial growth.
“This is the first time radiocarbon dating has been used on a bog body in Northern Ireland, and the only one to still exist, making this a truly unique archaeological discovery,” says Deehan in the statement.
Researchers also scanned the peatland with radar technology to ensure officials had gathered all remains. Alastair Ruffell, a geologist and geophysicist at Queen’s University Belfast, says in the statement that the boy’s bones were discovered at about one meter (just over three feet) below ground, “which matches the radiocarbon estimates.”
The remains were found in an area made famous by poet Seamus Heaney, according to the Independent’s David Young. The late Nobel laureate grew up in Bellaghy and wrote about bog bodies in poems such as “The Tollund Man.” As John Joe O’Boyle, the chief executive of Northern Ireland’s Forest Service, says in the statement, Heaney “probably never expected such a find on his own doorstep.”
The bog body was located on land owned by the Department of Agriculture. It’s now in the department’s custody, and O’Boyle says they’re working to transfer it to National Museums Northern Ireland, which will continue to examine and preserve the remains.
“I hope, in due course, the find will help us all understand better something of our very early history,” adds O’Boyle. “It certainly adds an important chapter to the historical and cultural significance of this hinterland and archaeological discoveries of bog bodies across Europe.”