Irish Peat Bogs

From The Irish Fireside, Volume 1, Number 10, September 3, 1883

In the putrefaction of vegetable matter, the only element which remains is carbon, mixed with any earths and metallic oxides which the vegetable contained. This carbon, if the atmosphere be freely admitted, slowly combines with oxygen, forms carbonic acid, and at length the whole disappears. But if air be excluded, the carbon remains for ages unchanged. At the Giant's Causeway, in the north of Ireland, we find a coal lying over a rank of columns of basalt, with another rank of basaltic columns standing over it. This coal which has a bituminous fracture, and burns with a white flame, is clearly the carbon of some ancient vegetable structure. We can plainly discover in it the grain of the wood, and the knots; and these latter are sometimes perfectly sound and unchanged either in texture or the natural colour of wood, although taken from the centre of a block of coal. I have one of these in which the knot of sound wood grows darker and darker from the centre, until at length it blackens into the nature of the coal from which it was taken. This coal is not pure carbon, but contains also hydrogen. Nothing is more common in bogs than to find trunks of trees not only undecayed but even of a stronger texture than when growing. The bogs themselves may be looked upon as the carbonaceous remains of ancient vegetables, which, being buried and immersed in water, have not had access of air to combine with oxygen. Such accumulations of carbonaceous matter are not only in themselves of a most unchangeable nature, but impart their qualities even to animal substances enveloped in them. The discovery of dead bodies buried at considerable depths in bogs, and in a high state of preservation, proves the age of the bodies as well as the antiseptic quality of the bog. Such discoveries have been frequently made in Ireland.

In the summer of 1821, the body of a man was found in a bog in the county of Galway. The bog was about ten feet and a half in depth, and the body lay about nine feet below its surface. It had all the appearance of recent death when discovered, excepting that the abdomen was quite collapsed; but on exposure to the atmosphere it decayed rapidly. The face was that of a young man with handsome features and foreign aspect; and his hair, which was long and black, hung loosely over his shoulders. The head, legs, and feet, were without covering, but the body was clothed in a tight dress, covering also the limbs as far as the knees and elbows. This dress was composed of the skin of some animal, laced in front, and having the hairy side inwards. This body must have been of great antiquity.

The following is from an early volume of the Philosophical Transactions--'During a great snow in Derbyshire, a man and woman were lost; and being found in May following, were buried in a peat moss, where they lay twenty-nine years. They were again found, and appeared no way altered; the colour of their skin being fair and natural, and their flesh soft as that of persons newly dead. They were occasionally exhibited during twenty years after--the man still remained perfect; the woman a little less so. They were then buried in a church-yard grave, where they speedily decayed.' There are many other instances on record, but the following may suffice--A man digging a peat-moor in Lincolnshire found the remains of a woman about six feet below the surface, in a high state of preservation. From parts of her dress she appeared to be of the better order of society. The body was doubled up in the bog. The skin was soft and pliable, stretching like a piece of doe leather, and was as strong: it was of a tawny colour. The nails of the hand were as fresh as in life. Bones, skin, gristle, nails, and hair, were the substances which appeared best preserved. These remains were deemed very ancient.

It seems very probable that the carbonaceous matter of bogs possesses an antiseptic quality in consequence of some modification which it and the other elements have undergone during gradual changes. It is certain that it is a common practice amongst the inhabitants of bog districts to tan horses hides by merely immersing them in a lough of bog-water, and the process succeeds tolerably. That such water contains something actually dissolved from the turf is plain, from the fact that its colour is brown just as if tannin, or something of an approximate composition, had been dissolved in it.