Wooden Articles found in Peat Bogs


Published in the Ulster Journal of Archeology Vol. VIII, McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, The Linenhall Press, 1902

DURING the last few years, I have obtained a number of wooden vessels and other articles from peat bogs deserving of notice in the Ulster Journal of Archeology. Although such objects, owing to their splitting and warping while drying, are not so much prized by collectors of antiquities as implements of stone and bronze, yet they should not be neglected, as they throw considerable light on the domestic customs of the ancient inhabitants of this country. The following are a selection from a much larger number of objects of this kind, which have accumulated in my collection of Irish antiquities :

In the summer of 1899 a man brought me a wooden vessel which he had found in Mullaghboy bog, County Derry. It is one of those vessels called churns by antiquaries, having a hole in the centre of the lid or cover through which a churn-staff could move upwards and downwards in the process of churning. The vessel was complete. The lid was made to lift off and on, and the hole in the centre was square, not round as that in modern churn lids, and it projects upwards like a short funnel, with an ear or small handle at each side. No churn-staff, so far as I know, has ever been found associated with such vessels ; or, indeed, anywhere away from where the vessels of this kind are found. The churn itself is cut from the solid wood, die centre being excavated, and a wall of about three-quarters of an inch left. It is 16 inches in height, and 16 inches in width at the centre: but it curves inward towards the mouth, and is there 13 inches wide. The bottom is a separate piece, and is fixed in a groove, into which it must have been pressed when the vessel was newly made. It was found about 3 feet down in the peat bank, as far as the finder could remember, and it contained nothing but “fog”(sphagnum). A wooden spade was found near it, but it broke up and “crumbled away.” Fig 1The vessel was beginning to crack when I bought it, but by a little judicious treatment I was able to prevent further cracking, and it is now in a very fair state of preservation. There are two slight projections, one at each side, about the middle part of the vessel, through which holes have been bored- I should think for the purpose of hanging it up, so as to prevent mice or rats making an attack on it. It is shown in fig. 1. The lid of this specimen is a very common type ; and almost all my specimens, even they are of small size, have the square hole in the centre. I show one small lid from Gortgole bog, near Portglenone. in fig. 2, which has no hole.Fig 2 The vessel to which this lid belonged was not found. In the summer of 1898 a large wooden tray was found in Craig’s bog, about two miles north- west of Cullybackey. It is one of a very common type of article found in bogs, but this specimen is unusually large. It is all of one piece, and has been cut and made from a large tree in a rather rough way, the workmanship being ol such a kind as a person who was Jack-of-all-trades would make. It measures 3 feet 4 inches in length, and 2 feet 2 inches in breadth, and has holes through a thickened portion at back of the handles by which it could be hung up against a wall. There is a crack at one end, but otherwise it is in good preservation. It is shown in fig. 3.Fig 3

I show in fig. 4 a vessel filled with bog butter. It was found at a depth of 6 feet in Castletown bog, near Ahoghill, County Antrim, in 1891. It is 11 inches high, of squarish appearance, contracts slightly below the mouth, and swells out to a slightly greater width below the centre, and at this thickest portion there is a handle at one side. The butter is heaped up above the mouth of the vessel, consequently there was no lid ; but the bottom was fixed as in the first specimen described. The breadth at the mouth is 6 inches and at the widest part 6½ inches. It has also been cut from the solid wood. With the exception of one crack, the vessel is in a fair state of preservation.Fig 4 & 5 I have three other vessels of the same type, all found in bogs widely separated : some of them, indeed, in separate counties. I have also observed vessels of same shape filled with butter in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, which were found in southern counties, so that this type of vessel was widely distributed. It is interesting to find that all such vessels contain butter, though this is not the only kind of vessel in which bog butter is found. The next vessel I have to describe is a mether with two handles, which was found a few years ago in a bog near Armoy, County Antrim. It is 10½ inches high, and 5½ inches wide at the mouth, from which it curves gracefully to the bottom, where it is 4½ inches broad. It is square, but the edge of the mouth is not level, as each side shows a gentle downward curve from corner to corner. This vessel has also been cut from a solid piece of  wood ; but the bottom, as in other specimens, is a separate piece.  I have another example of this kind with four handles, found in a bog near Ballymoney, besides several methers of horn. They were all, no doubt, used as drinking vessels, and are fairly numerous. Many have been figured from time to time in catalogues of collections and in archaeological journals. It is shown in fig. 5.

The next specimen is a small bowl-shaped vessel or cup with a handle, all cut from a solid piece of wood. The outside has been nicely smoothed, and has two grooves cut round the rim by way of ornament ; and the handle is solid, with a Fig 6small tongue running downwards. The inside has been rather roughly excavated, and does not present the smoothed appearance of the outside. It has been injured at the lip, as will appear in fig. 6, where it is shown. It was found in Gortgole bog about three years ago. There is also shown in fig. 7 a plate or platter of wood, which, with two others that fitted into each other, was found in Fenagh bog, near Ballymena, about four years ago. It has the appearance of a large soup-plate. It has been cut out of the solid, and shows coarse workmanship. Fig 7It is 16 inches in diameter. I show lastly a sort of hand-spade or trowel with toes. It was found in Culbane bog, County Derry, near Portglenone, in 1896. The finder has been impressed with the appearance of the object, and has made an attempt to cut in rude letters on one side the word “Good.” It is shown in fig. 8.Fig 8

This list might be indefinitely extended, as we find in bogs, besides the kinds of articles enumerated, canoes, paddles, spades, and vessels of different types from those described ; and only for the preservative quality of bogs, we would have had no knowledge of any of these things. We might ask why such articles are found in bogs. No doubt the answer to this would be that bogs were good places to hide in during times when the country was in a disturbed state, and on such occasions possibly all portable articles would be taken to the same places of security. People may even have lived on the drier parts of bogs as they did on crannoges, in order to be secure from plunderers and robbers as well as wild beasts ; or they may have only hid the articles and never recovered them. In the matter of the butter, it may have been purposely buried in the bog with the view of preserving it or giving it a flavour. In one case which I have described, 1 and which was authenticated by a clergyman living in the neighbourhood, it was found that a place had been purposely excavated to put the vessel in, and twelve feet of bog had grown over it by the time it was found, which is about twenty years ago. MADGHS

In the list I have given, we see a very fair series of domestic utensils, used a long time ago by the people of this country; and the question may be asked, as it has often been asked to myself, what is the age of these things? Our authorities are, as a rule, rather indefinite on the question of age, and it is therefore not easy to give the answer in the way the questioner would like; that is, tell him that such an article was 300, 500, or 1,000 years old.

Sir William Wilde says, in his Catalogue of the Antiquities of the Royal Irish Academy, p. 200, in referring to objects such as I have figured : they “throw much light on the domestic habits and manners of the Irish, from the tenth to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.” In O’Curry’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish there is frequent mention of cuads or mugs, medars, churns, buckets, cans, etc. The value of some of the vessels is given as “four cows for curachs (canoes), four cows for wooden vessels, namely, vats, tubs, and keeves of oak, and small vessels besides.”2 An ancient sage named Finntaun, in the year 558, related that he had planted a tree, and after it had grown old he made from its stem seven vats, seven keeves, seven stans, seven churns, seven pitchers, seven milans, and seven medars.3 This Finntaun came to Ireland before the Deluge, and was still alive in 558, and he was relating what had happened long before that period. Whilst we must take Finntaun as legendary, perhaps we might be justified in taking it as historical, that, at the year 558, such a series of vessels was being used by the Irish people. We do not find many of these vessels connected with crannoges. though, no doubt, many of them may have been used by inhabitants of such places. Several trays have been recorded from crannoges,4 and canoes and paddles have frequently been found, which we have no hesitation in connecting with them, though they may not be found quite near such structures. A lake village was found a few years ago at Glastonbury, in England, and excavations have been going on there at regular intervals, and reports on the subject given annually to the British Association. In 1895, at the Ipswich meeting. Dr. Mumo stated that many of the industrial relics from Glastonbury exhibit some of the special characteristics of this style of art (late Celtic), the importation of which into Britain preceded the Romans by two or three centuries. One or two objects only showed Roman origin; and Dr. Munro says “that this shows that the village existed as an inhabited place up till Roman times, and it is possible it was the intrusion of the Romans into the district that put an end to it.”5 There were found in this village wooden vessels tubs, buckets, and cups, some stave made, but some cut from the solid. It may be a question whether the late Celtic culture reached Ireland directly from the Continent about the same time as it reached Britain, or came to us through the latter country. But suppose there was a colony of the people who practised the art known as late Celtic, which came directly to Ireland, I can imagine a large immigration of those people into this country from Britain at the time of the Roman invasion. That the same people lived in both countries we can easily see by comparing the finds from the lake-dwellings of the one with those from the crannoges of the other. With regard to the high-class workmanship known as late Celtic, I scarcely think Ireland stands second in rank. But I am dealing at present with vessels cut from solid trunks of wood ; and if the vessels of that kind found at Glastonbury can be dated from the third century B.C. to about the time of the invasion of Britain by the Romans, I would put the use of such vessels in this country at much about the same period. I would therefore carry back the earlier date, given by Sir William Wilde, several centuries, though, considering how slowly changes in patterns must have taken place in early times, the later period he mentions may be allowed to stand. There is still, however, an uncertain element in ascertaining the age of any individual object : for owing to the preservative quality of bog. an object 1.000 years old would perhaps look as fresh as one of 500 years old ; and we cannot tell what change may have taken place in the fashion of utensils during the long time we have taken in : probably very little. By careful recording, we might get an insight into the age, as in light objects of wood, which would be rather buoyed up than sink, the deeper they were found, we would say they were the older. Although we cannot tell the exact age of any article which has been found in a bog, yet I think we may say generally that in Ireland the use of wooden vessels made out of solid trunks of trees, probably of similar patterns to those I have figured, extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era.

1 British Association Report, 1879?, p. 395?

2 [unreadable]


4 Wood Mether [unreadable]

5 [originally recorded as 1, but renumber here as 5 for clarity] British Association Report, 1895, p. 519.