Well-preserved ancient human remains carbon dated as potentially 2,500 years old have been discovered in a bog in Northern Ireland.
Archaeologists from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s body recovery team obtained the remains after human bones were found on the surface of peatland in Bellaghy, Co Londonderry, in October 2023.
They have been carbon dated by experts at Queen’s University in Belfast as being between 2,000 to 2,500 years old.
The skeletal remains are believed to be from a male aged between 13 to 17 years of age at the time of death.
PSNI Detective Inspector Nikki Deehan said police could not initially be sure if the remains were ancient or the result of a more recent death.
“Therefore, we proceeded to excavate the body with full forensic considerations in a sensitive and professional manner,” they said.
“This approach also ensures that any DNA evidence could be secured for any potential criminal investigation.
“Ultimately this wasn’t the case in this instance.”
The excavations first uncovered a tibia and fibula, and a humerus, ulna and radius bone relating to the lower left leg and right arm respectively.
Further investigation revealed more bones belonging to the same individual.
About five metres south of the surface remains, the bones of a lower left arm and a left femur were located protruding from the ground.
Further examination of the area between the main body and the surface remains located additional finger bones, fingernails, part of the left femur and the breastbone.
A post-mortem examination was carried out by a certified forensic anthropologist.
The individual’s skeleton was well preserved and also had the presence of partial skin, fingernails of the left hand, toenails and possibly a kidney.
Little is known so far about the male’s cause of death.
”The well-preserved nature of the body meant radiocarbon dating could be used to ascertain the time of death,” said Detective Inspector Deehan.
“The radiocarbon dates have placed the time of death between 2,000 – 2,500 years ago, approximately 500BC.
“This is the first time radiocarbon dating has been used on a bog body in Northern Ireland, and the only one to still exist, making this a truly unique archaeological discovery for Northern Ireland.”
The radiocarbon dating was conducted by experts at the 14Chrono Centre at Queen’s University.
Dr Alastair Ruffell from Queen’s explained the process.
“To ensure the highest possible standards in forensic recovery of human remains were maintained, we conducted two phases of high-resolution ground penetrating radar survey at the site,” he said.
“The results showed no indications of further human remains.
“The remains were discovered at approximately one metre below the current land surface which matches the radiocarbon estimates.
“In addition, they were amongst a cluster of fossil tree remains suggesting that the body may have died or been buried in a copse or stand of trees, or washed in.”
The bog body was found in an area made famous by the work of the late Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney.
The land is own by Stormont’s Department of Agriculture.
The remains will now be transferred to the ownership of National Museums NI.
John Joe O’Boyle, chief executive of Stormont’s Forest Service, hailed the significance of what he described as a “very exciting find”.
“This ancient bog body was discovered on land owned by the department and we are now working with National Museums NI to transfer it to them so that they can continue with further examination and preservation of the remains,” he said.
“I hope, in due course, the find will help us all understand better something of our very early history.
“Seamus Heaney, when he was writing his series of poems inspired by bog bodies, probably never expected such a find on his own doorstep.
“It certainly adds an important chapter to the historical and cultural significance of this hinterland and archaeological discoveries of bog bodies across Europe.”
This excavation is one of many investigations carried out by the dedicated body recovery team within the PSNI.
The unit is led by an officer experienced in field archaeology, and staffed with officers trained in the fundamental skills of forensic archaeology and bone identification.
The team has previously assisted in recovering and examining human remains, including recovering those of missing persons up to almost three decades after the individuals went missing.