Block of butter buried in bog bank backdated to 1,000 years ago by dating experts

By Ben Miller | 04 March 2014

A huge block of butter found in a bog in Northern Ireland was churned more than 1,000 years ago before being buried near the village of Tempo to allow it to be eaten during the winter

A photo of a large nobbly brown and yellow round of butter from 1,000 years ago
A potential buttery biscuit base from 1,000 years ago in Enniskillen© Fermanagh County Museum
Discovered by local man Jack Shannon when he cut turf more than 30 years ago, the “bog butter” has been carbon-dated to between 1030 and 1150AD.

“I am overjoyed about it,” said Shannon.

“I’m glad that there was something like this found in the bog to let the outside world see what was going on long ago.

“I feel honoured that it came out of the bog bank safe and well.”

Jim McDonald, a Radiocarbon Technician at Queens University’s Chrono Centre in Belfast, admitted the investigation had been an unusual one.

“We are sent many different types of sample from all over the world,” he explained.

“This piece of butter was somewhat different. For the first time in my 22 years’ experience I was asked to pose for a photograph when the sample was being handed over. 

“So I was a little more aware than usual that there were a lot of people who were interested in the results of our carbon dating tests.”

The revelations were keenly anticipated by the original examiners of the butter at Fermanagh County Museum Service.

“These results help us to build a picture of agriculture and butter-making in the distant past and to understand that the local custom of butter-making has a much longer history than most people realise,” said Sarah McHugh, the Manager of the collection which is part of Enniskillen Castle Museums.

“Knowing that it dates to a time when Ireland was Christian, it is very likely that this piece of butter was buried in the bog near Tempo to preserve it for consumption in the winter months. Why it was never dug up again remains a mystery.”

Linda Logan, who was part of the University of Ulster party which visited Enniskillen to hand over the sample, said the research team had embarked on a “very important, James Bond-style mission” with their “inconspicuous padded envelope”.

“People used to bury butter in the bog to keep it from going rancid in the days before refrigerators were available,” she added, observing the museum’s “large ball of bog butter” in a “top-secret lab”.

The butter is the first object included in a line-up, Fermanagh: a History in one Hundred Objects, charting the finest ancient artefacts dug up in the county. The public will be invited to nominate their favourite exhibits for the final countdown, leading to new museum displays.

“I feel it bodes well for the rest of our research project that the first object we selected for inclusion has been so intriguing,” said McHugh.

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