Ireland has long been recognised as a farming nation. Even way back in the Bronze Age, we were producing more than we needed, with the surplus being buried for use during leaner times.
Plenty of ancient treasure has been found buried in the peat bogs of Ireland, preserved for thousands of years. The most famous of these was probably the 4,000-year-old Coggalbeg Hoard, dug up by Roscommon farmer Hubert Lannon in 1945. But all that glitters isn’t gold – sometimes the treasure that’s found is of a very different composition indeed.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Bog Butter
Bog butter is basically meat or dairy fat that’s been preserved because it was buried in a bog. It’s been known for years that this fatty substance was buried in Irish bogs from the Iron Age right through the Middle Ages. Weights of up to 23kgs have been found in the past, with the first documented discovery taking place in the 17th century and around 500 more made since then.
While some bog butters found in Scotland derived from animal fats, most of the Irish samples come from a dairy source – so they really are butter. But don’t expect it to look (or taste) anything like Kerrygold. In fact, you wouldn’t want to spread this stuff on your toast. It’s described as a white or yellow waxy substance and was generally wrapped in bark, wooden containers or animal bladders. Mmmm, delicious!
Bronze Age Dairy Farmers
Now, researchers have discovered that people were burying butter in Ireland 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. Thanks to a new batch of analysis and carbon dating, they’ve discovered examples from the Bronze Age, with the earliest sample dating from 1,700 BC. At 3,700 years old, that’s some pretty old butter – way past it’s sell-by date!
The Bronze Age discoveries, which were wrapped in bark, came from Counties Offaly and Westmeath. The researchers think these finds are evidence of a well-established dairy industry four thousand years ago. They also think that the burial of butter could have been fairly widespread. It might have been buried in soil to preserve it in the short term, but only the butter buried in the bog would have been preserved for thousands of years.
Later, during the Iron Age, there seems to have been a spike in this activity, if the number of finds are anything to go by. These butters were often buried in wooden vessels or containers, and have been found all over the country, indicating that this was a fairly widespread practice. Perhaps the butter was part of a surplus supply, to be stored or preserved for times of hardship.
Paying the Rent
The Middle Ages, from the 5th to the 15th centuries, was also a busy time for burying butter. Some of these medieval bog butters were found in wooden containers; others were wrapped in bark, leather or animal bladders. Again, the medieval samples covered large areas of the country.
So, why were people still burying butter in the Middle Ages? Well, written accounts from these times portray butter as a luxury food, and mention the raiding of butter stores. Interestingly, according to records from early medieval Irish law, butter was one of the products that could be used to pay rent. Maybe it was buried to store it safely until rents were due.
Imagine heading to your garden, spade in hand, next time your rent is due! There’s something to ponder over next time you’re buttering your toast.