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The 1,600-year-old pagan idol found in Roscommon bog, Ireland. Source: Archaeological Management Solutions/European Association of Archaeologists

Iron Age Pagan Idol Discovered in Irish Bog

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Archaeologists excavating ahead of the creation of a new road in Ireland have discovered a “massive” 1,600-year-old pagan idol.

Roscommon bog occupies 343 hectares between low drumlin hills in the headwaters of the River Suck, in the western part of County Roscommon, Ireland. The particular part of the bog in which the discovery was made is in Gortnacrannagh, about six kilometers (3.73 miles) from the prehistoric royal site of Rathcroghan. While a bog represents thousands of years of rotting organic matter, Visit Roscommon explains that this is a “Living Bog.” What’s more, it is the largest raised bog restoration project ever undertaken in Ireland.

Aerial view of the site. (Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

Aerial view of the site. (Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

A 1972 paper published in  The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland describes the 1968/9 discovery of “two warped fragments of pre-historic block wheels” in the Roscommon bog. At that time the National Museum of Ireland declared that these two artifacts were “the earliest evidence of the wheel being used for transport on the island.” Now, excavators at the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge Road Project have called in a team of archaeologists from the Archaeological Management Solutions (AMS) after they unearthed “a massive wooden idol” dating to the same period as the wheels, around 1,600 years ago.

The Mystical Bogs, Home of the Gods

The so-called “Gortnacrannagh Idol” measures over two and a half meters (8.2 ft.) high. Less than 15 similar idols have been found in Ireland and this one represents the largest discovered to date Irish Examiner say the 1,600-year-old “wooden pagan idol” was carved from a split oak tree trunk during the Iron Age, which in Ireland occurred between 500 BC - 400 AD.

A human-shaped head is featured at one end of the artifact and the ancient artisans also marked the body with several horizontal notches. Dr. Eve Campbell, director of the AMS excavation site, told the Irish Examiner that ancient Celtic cultures regarded wetlands “as mystical places where they could connect with their gods and the Otherworld.”

Wood specialist, Cathy Moore examining the pagan idol after it was discovered in Gornacrannagh. (Archaeological Management Solutions/European Association of Archaeologists)

Wood specialist, Cathy Moore examining the pagan idol after it was discovered in Gornacrannagh. (Archaeological Management Solutions/European Association of Archaeologists)

Often in archaeology, more revealing that actual artifacts themselves, are the contexts in which they are found. This discovery is no different. Excavated right beside the pagan idol the archaeologists found an animal bone and a “ritual dagger.” The blade had never been used to hack wood or to cut meat and this suggests it was perhaps made specifically for a one-off animal sacrifice (hence the bone).

Perhaps then, the entire ritual was performed in-front of, and maybe even to, the wooden icon? Those last two questions are hard to answer. However, wood specialist Cathy Moore points out that the lower ends of several similar wooden figures “were also worked to a point.” This suggests the artifacts may once have stood upright within the ritual environment.

Front and side profile of the wooden idol. (AMS/Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

Front and side profile of the wooden idol. (AMS/Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

Is the Pagan Idol an “Iconic” Reaction to the Good Book?

The archaeologists are currently unclear as to what exactly the wooden figure represented to the people who created it. However, the team suspects it may have represented “particular individuals, or perhaps it functioned as wooden bog bodies, sacrificed in lieu of humans.” Another idea is that because the pagan idol is so tall it may have “marked special places in the landscape.” Dr. Ros Ó Maoldúin, of AMS, said no matter what it represented, the Gortnacrannagh Idol is such a “unique and significant find”.

Drawing of the idol’s head. (Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

Drawing of the idol’s head. (Rathcroghan Visitor Centre)

The archaeologists have dated the wooden idol to about 1,600 years ago. They defined this time as being “100 years before St Patrick came to Ireland”. It is perhaps no coincidence that most of the 15 wooden idols discovered in the bogs of Ireland all date to around 400 AD. According to Dr. M. Van Groesen in his 2008 study “From Gods To Idols: The Expansion Of Heathendom” there was a significant increase in the production of wooden idols in the mid-16th century, “after the first waves of Christian conquistadors reached South America.” Maybe 1,600 years ago in Ireland, Iron Age communities also created such idols to represent their ancestral gods.

What better way to increase the desired divide between the old ways and the first waves of Christian missionariesintent of changing the past, and future, of Ireland?

Top Image: The 1,600-year-old pagan idol found in Roscommon bog, Ireland. Source: Archaeological Management Solutions/European Association of Archaeologists

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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