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Unlocking secrets of the Iron Age

Life in the Iron Age may have been brutish and short but people still found time to style their hair and polish nails, and those were just the men.

india Updated: Aug 05, 2006 21:21 IST

Life in the Iron Age may have been nasty, brutish and short but people still found time to style their hair and polish their fingernails – and that was just the men.

These are the findings of scientists who have been examining the latest preserved prehistoric bodies to emerge from Ireland’s peat bogs – the first to be found in Europe for 20 years.

One of the bodies, churned up by a peat-cutting machine at Clonycavan near Dublin in 2003, had raised Mohawk-style hair, held in place with gel imported from abroad. The other, unearthed three months later and 40 km away in Oldcroghan by workmen digging a ditch, had perfectly manicured fingernails.

“I think the message I’m getting is that although they were living in a different time, a different culture, eating different things, living in a different way, people are people – they’re the same in their thinking,” said Rolly Read, head of conservation at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

While the last two centuries have seen hundreds of bog bodies recovered from northern Europe’s wetlands — where they were preserved by the unique chemical composition of the peat — many were not examined in detail because techniques to further preserve them had not been perfected.

Read said that the latest finds had yielded precious insights into Iron Age life. For example, the hair product used by Clonycavan Man was a gel made of plant oil and pine resin imported from southwestern France or Spain, showing trade between Ireland and southern Europe was taking place almost two-and-a-half millennia ago.

Both Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man — who were in their 20s when they died — met grisly ends, the latter in particular bearing the scars of horrific torture, including having his nipples cut almost through. Like several other bog bodies, Oldcroghan Man had been beheaded.

Other examples, like Denmark’s famous Tollund Man, discovered in 1950, still had the rope used to strangle them around their necks. Manicured fingernails and evidence of good diet, not to mention Clonycavan Man’s taste for imported cosmetics, seem to indicate that many of those in the bogs were from the upper classes.