19 January 2006

Mind-boggling find brings past to life


**See also illustrated >>Scotsman story

by Laura McDaid

A South Belfast professor specialising in ancient landscapes is to feature in a BBC programme this Friday about the discovery of two Irish Neolithic men.
The bodies of Clonycavan Man and Croghan Man were discovered in counties Offaly and Meath two years ago.
The bodies have attracted world wide attention in the archaeological world, not only for their age – they’re more than 2,300 years old – but for their prehistoric style - one wore an expensive hair gel made from resin and imported from mainland Europe.
The finds also tell us much about the culture of the time - both men were savagely killed and their bodies dumped on county boundaries.
Palaeoecologist Valerie Hall, who is a professor at Queen’s University, was part of a team of experts, which included the Republic’s state pathologist Marie Cassidy and Det Sgt Mick Macken of the Garda Technical Bureau, who examined the remains in order to extract information about the way they died and the environment in which they lived.
The team concluded that the men, who emerged in extremely good condition from Irish bogs in 2003, were slaughtered as human sacrifices.
Prof Hall said the making of the programme was “the most extraordinary experience”.
“To find bodies that are startlingly well preserved is always exciting.
“We found out so much about them that they’ve become individuals with personalities.”
Amongst other things, the team discovered from fingerprints taken by the Garda Technical Bureau that Old Croghan Man, on whom Prof Hall was focused, has fingerprint patterns similar to those seen in Irish people today.
Although crushed by blows from a heavy weapon and further distorted after two millennia in the bog, the computer-generated reconstruction of Clonycavan Man reveals someone you might meet on the street today.
“They’re just like normal people we’d know,” said Prof Hall. “In fact, dispelling the myth that Irish people were all tiny in centuries past, Old Croghan Man is around six feet tall.”
Clonycavan Man was beheaded, but samples of his fingernails found in the peat pin pointed the exact location where he was buried.
“When we looked at the bones in his neck, we could actually see the cut marks. This man was savagely murdered, and from the bizarre lines and cuts, it seems it was most likely as a human sacrifice. It looks like they were tortured.”
It was Prof Hall’s job, along with Dr Gill Plunkett and Dr Nicki Whitehouse, also based at Queen’s, to search for pollen and other palaeo-environmental indicators to establish the season of death.
“We were also curious to determine what kind of landscape was around at the time and found a lot about the way things were at that time. Some of what we discovered was inconclusive, some was fascinating stuff, but you’ll just have to watch the programme to see it all come to life!”
Timewatch airs on BBC2 at 9pm on Friday night.

Journalist:: Laura McDaid

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