By Shawn Pogatchnik
Ireland's archaeologists heralded as a miracle Tuesday the accidental discovery of an ancient book of psalms - found last week when a construction worker drove the shovel of his backhoe into a bog.
The approximately 20-page book has been dated to 800 A.D. to 1000 A.D. and, according to Trinity College manuscripts expert Bernard Meehan, is the first discovery of an Irish early medieval document in two centuries. Never before has such a document been discovered buried in the soggy earth of Ireland.
"I've been trying to come to terms with it. I cannot think of a parallel anywhere," Meehan said. "What we have here is a really spectacular, completely unexpected find."
"This is really a miracle find," said Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, which has the book stored in refrigeration and facing years of painstaking analysis before it is put on public display.
"There's two sets of odds that make this discovery really way out," Wallace said in an interview. "First of all, it's unlikely that something this fragile could survive buried in a bog at all, and then for it to be unearthed and spotted before it was destroyed is incalculably more amazing."
He said an engineer was digging up bogland last week to create commercial potting soil somewhere in Ireland's midlands - he won't specify where because a team of archaeologists is currently exploring the site - when, "just beyond the bucket of his bulldozer, he spotted something."
"The owner of the bog has had dealings with us in the past and is very much in favour of archaeological discovery and reporting it," Wallace said.
Crucially, he said, the bog owner covered up the book with damp soil. Had it been left exposed overnight, he said, "it could have dried out and just vanished, blown away."
|Ireland already has several other holy books from the early medieval period, most famously the ornately illustrated Book of Kells|
The book was found open to a page describing, in black Latin script, Psalm 83, in which God hears complaints of other nations' attempts to wipe out the name of Israel. Wallace noted that the message had "an unexpectedly contemporary connection," referring to the current Israeli-Hezbollah conflict raging in south Lebanon. He said several National Museum and Trinity College experts spent Tuesday analyzing only that page - the number of letters per line, lines per page, size of page - and the book's binding and cover, which he described as "leather velum, very thick wallet in appearance."
It could take months of study, he said, just to identify the safest way to pry open the pages without damaging or destroying them.
"That is certainly going to be the nightmare, trying to separate the pages," he said, ruling out the prospect of using X-rays to investigate without physically moving the pages.
Ireland already has several other holy books from the early medieval period, most famously the ornately illustrated Book of Kells, which has been on display at Trinity College in Dublin since the 19th century.