Rare Iron Age idol found in Irish fen

On its recovery, the idol was taken to University College Dublin for an extensive three-year conservation project.

The Iron Age idol is undergoing a three-year conservation project at University College Dublin. IMAGE: John Channing.

A large wooden Iron Age idol has been recovered during excavations in a fen in the townland of Gortnacrannagh, County Roscommon, Ireland. Found 6km north of the famous royal site of Rathcroghan, it adds to the picture of how this rich, ritual landscape was used throughout prehistory and into the early medieval period.Working in advance of an upgrade of the N5 between Ballaghaderreen and Scramoge, a team from Archaeological Management Solutions (AMS), led by Eve Campbell, carried out the excavation of a riverside fen along the route between August 2020 and July of this year. Earlier trial trenching had revealed some burnt features and it was initially thought that the archaeological remains represented a small burnt spread. Once topsoil-stripping began, however, it became apparent that the site was much larger and much more significant.

Centuries-worth of depositional activity was uncovered during the project, providing evidence of this site being used from the Neolithic through to the early medieval period, with a peak of activity in the late Bronze Age and Iron Age. The site comprised a brushwood trackway and a stone and wooden platform built on the edge of a fen associated with the Owenur River; immediately adjacent on the dryland, a ring-ditch and post circle were also found.

BELOW An aerial view of the excavation.
An aerial view of the excavation. IMAGE: John Channing

A significant assemblage of artefacts was retrieved from the peat, including an iron dagger with a bone handle, iron blades, wooden vessel fragments, bone pins, a late Bronze Age disc-headed pin, an early medieval ring-pin, and an Iron Age ard (a type of plough). Large quantities of animal bone were found in association with the platform and trackway, including whole articulated animals, purposefully deposited in the bog, suggesting the area was used for animal sacrifice. In addition, several human cranial fragments were found buried within the trackway and platform.

The most significant find, however, was the wooden idol, which was found face-down approximately 10m from the stone platform and parallel with the shore. On its recovery, the idol was taken to University College Dublin for an extensive three-year conservation project. While still ongoing, this work has identified that the idol is made of oak and, although now broken into two pieces, it would have once measured over 2.5m long. Large post-holes found on the shore of the fen, suggest that the idol – and perhaps others like it – stood upright there before it was decommissioned and buried.

Eleven similar wooden idols have previously been discovered across Ireland, and this one appears to fit within a smaller subset of figures with notched bodies and small, stylised heads. The other notched figures, however, have been largely dated to the Bronze Age, whereas radiocarbon dates for this idol place it more squarely in the late Iron Age (calAD 252-413). Interestingly, the Gortnacrannagh notched figure has parallels with idols found in Denmark and Germany during this period. As post-excavation analysis continues, any potential links will be explored further.

Since the artefact itself is too fragile for some analyses, this past August AMS staff – in collaboration with the UCC Pallasboy Project and the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture – made a replica of the idol. Doing so, not only allowed the team to better appreciate how the idol may have been used in the landscape, but it will now also go on display at the local museum – Rathcroghan Centre in Tulsk, County Roscommon – so that it can be appreciated by the public.