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Beyond Stone & Bone

The Poet and the Bog Body
by Heather Pringle
March 27, 2009

peat-bog-irelandAs a journalist, I have written extensively over the years about all the science that goes into understanding vanished lives and extinct societies and civilizations. I have long been fascinated by the way archaeologists begin with the humblest of clues, say a dark-blue residue on a jagged sherd, and end up after years of scientific analysis with an entirely new glimpse into the lives of the Maya and the way in which they painted both people and jars a bright sky-blue before sacrificing them to their rain god Chaak.

By contrast, I have written very little over the years about the poetry of archaeology, and I now see that this is a glaring sin of omission, as we live in a privileged time. I say this because one of the finest poets in the English language today, Seamus Heaney, has written with great beauty and wonder about a particular group of the ancient dead: the Iron-Age bog bodies of Northern Europe.

If you have never heard of Seamus Heaney—the 1995 Nobel Laureate in Literature—I strongly encourage you to look him up the next time you are in a library or bookstore. Heaney spent the first 14 years of his life in the rural countryside of Northern Ireland, where his father owned a small cattle farm, Mossbawn. Nearly everyone in the region depended on peat for their winter fuel, and many farmers cut their own supplies. “When I was a child and an adolescent,” Heaney later recalled, “I lived among peat-diggers and I also worked in the peat bog myself. I loved the structure the peat bank revealed after the spade had worked its way through the surface of the peat. I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day…”

Heaney was equally fascinated as a child by the strange preservative powers of the bog. Many of the neighbors told stories about things they had found in the bog, and one local family recalled pulling the soft skeleton of an Irish elk from the tealike waters. To Heaney, the bogs of Ireland were a kind of memory-bank, both literally and figuratively, and he never forgot their power even after his family left Mossbawn and Heaney became an established poet in the Irish Republic.

We are all the luckier for this, for no one has ever written about the dead of Europe’s bogs as Seamus Heaney does. I’ll close this week by quoting from part of “ The Grauballe Man”:

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

The grain of his wrists

is like bog oak,

the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.

His instep has shrunk

cold as a swan’s foot

or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge

and purse of a mussel,

his spine an eel arrested

under a glisten of mud.

Those interested in reading more about the bog bodies and Seamus Heaney might like to check out the following essay and article, which appeared in Archaeology magazine:

Bodies of the Bogs

Poetic Visions of the Past

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3 comments for "The Poet and the Bog Body"

  • Reply posted by Rachel Bowman (March 30, 2009, 7:38 am):

    Beautiful! I have had a fascination with the Bog Bodies since my great-aunt bought “The Bog People” for me in the 1970’s (an odd book for a seven-year-old, but perfect to be sure!). I’ve kept up with this fascinating subject as often as I can over the past 32 years, and am pleased these amazing finds still yield information on how Iron Age peoples lived — and that the bodies stil have the power to inspire. Those who work in, and are fascinated with, archaeology need all the inspiration we can get to continue learning about the past in the face of financial and apathy obstacles.


  • Reply posted by Heather (March 31, 2009, 7:32 am):

    What a wonderful gift for a child! P.V. Glob’s book, The Bog People, is still in print I believe, and still a superb piece of writing for children and adults alike. Your great-aunt clearly knew how to arouse the curiosity and wonder of a young reader.


  • Reply posted by Ben Gage (September 28, 2009, 5:31 am):

    “….poetry of archaeology…” I like the sound of that, thanks for your work…


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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