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Unearthed idol may have been a pagan deity, researchers say, and could hold clues to Ireland’s past

The wooden figure is on a tarp. (Archaeological Management Solutions )
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A wooden idol that just predates St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland more than 1,000 years ago has been unearthed from a bog that archaeologists think may have been a sacred ritual site. Researchers say the figure could represent a pagan deity.

The object might offer fascinating insights into what was happening in Ireland right before Christianization, experts say.

Made from a split oak trunk, the figure has a human head and several notches along its body. According to researchers, a dozen similar idols have been discovered in Ireland. This recent find is the tallest, stretching over eight feet.

Full animal skeletons — including at least 10 prehistoric dogs — and a bone-handled ritual dagger were also found in the bog, which researchers say suggests the wetlands may have been used for animal sacrifice ceremonies in which the idol could have been involved. Wooden cauldrons and human remains, including cranial fragments from at least four people, were also uncovered.

“We realized what we had essentially is a sacred bog where over millennia, people were depositing objects or idols,” said Eve Campbell. She is an archaeologist with the independent consultancy, Archaeological Management Solutions, who directed the excavation.

In prehistory, bogs were seen as sacred spaces where people could contact ancestors, spirits or gods — and sometimes as portals between worlds. Luckily for researchers, these spaces’ wetland conditions helped preserve ancient wood.

“They're not quite land, not quite water, they have this wonderful reflective quality,” Campbell said. “If you think about a time before mirrors, there's something very magical about these still waters where everything is reflected back.”

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Dated to be more than 1,600 years old, the Iron Age-era carving was discovered by a team of archaeologists in Gortnacrannagh who were working to survey the area before a construction project began. The figure was found facedown and broken into two pieces.

The idol may have stood upright, wood specialist Cathy Moore said in a statement, which could indicate it marked a specific location or represented a distinct person or deity.

Wooden idols such as this one could have also functioned as stand-in bog bodies, Moore said. Bog bodies are the naturally mummified remains of humans believed to have been sacrificed and placed in sacred bogs. Some of the anthropomorphic wooden figures found have been buried in seemingly human ways, Campbell said, which could indicate they were treated the same way.

Archaeologists weren’t expecting the site to hold such rare artifacts, Campbell said. But once they stripped the topsoil off to expose the remains, “we realized there was something a lot more significant going on,” she said.

Campbell said as soon as they saw the notches in the figure, they knew exactly what it was. Similar artifacts have been found across northern Europe, in places such as Scandinavia where bogs are common.

Other figures were often stumbled upon as people harvested bogs’ peat for heating and electrical energy, Campbell said, so it was nice that this one was discovered during a focused archaeological excavation.

Though there is some tendency to name artifacts of this nature the “Gortnacrannagh Man” or something similar, Campbell said there are no clear characteristics to indicate this idol’s gender. Several similar Irish and European figures have had deliberately “ambiguous or nonbinary sexual characteristics,” she said.

“Finding such ambiguous figures in the context of bogs is really interesting,” she said. “The bog is a special place because it is neither land nor water. It is powerful and dangerous because it is a liminal place transcending categories. In a sense, the same can be said for people who possess nonbinary genders.”

Campbell said referring to the figure as an idol was a bit playful because of St. Patrick’s writing about how the Irish had no knowledge of Jesus but worshiped idols and “unclean” things.

“In our imagination, we were thinking of St. Patrick, if he had passed by what he might have seen and how disgusted he might have been to watch what was happening,” she said.

Ireland’s patron saint is believed to have been captured from Britain by Irish pirates in his teens and brought to Ireland as an enslaved person. In “Confessions,” which was published shortly before his death around 460, St. Patrick wrote about the spiritual awakening he had during enslavement. Horrified by the pagan worship he had seen in Ireland, he swore to someday become a priest and return to the island to spread Christianity. He fulfilled the pledge later in life, returning as a missionary.

The wooden figure has been moved to University College Dublin and will undergo a three-year preservation project before being given to the National Museum of Ireland. In the meantime, a replica will be created to help researchers begin studying the idol.

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