What stories can we tell about the Iron Age Pallasboy vessel?

Aidan O’Sullivan, UCD School of Archaeology, University College Dublin

Archaeology is essentially story-telling, using things from the past as inspirations for thinking about people, places and time. And if there’s one thing that wetland archaeology in particular is good at, it’s time.

In wetland archaeology, we can sometimes see the evidence for a long-vanished moment when Mesolithic hunter-gatherers walked across estuarine muds thousands of years ago, leaving their footprints for us to discover. We can identify‑using dendrochronology or tree-ring dating—the year and season that an oak tree was felled to build an Iron Age trackway like Corlea 1, and using the same techniques we can also trace when a house was built, how often it was repaired, how long it was occupied and more than likely when it was abandoned. So, wetland archaeology allows us to look at long-ago moments, seasons, years, decades and centuries.

Wetland archaeology, because of the often astonishing quality of survival of evidence in waterlogged deposits, also enables us to look at artefacts very closely, to trace tiny pieces of evidence, such as on an ancient wooden vessel, and to tell stories about how those things were made, used and abandoned—and through that narrative, to get a sense of how people in the past used things to tell stories about their own world.

Toar Vessel excavation

The Pallasboy wooden vessel is interesting in lots of ways, and one of those is of course where it was found. It is well known that during the Iron Age, people deposited human bodies, weaponry, tools and cauldrons into waterlogged places, for various cultural, ideological and ritual reasons. This understanding, as well as surviving evidence on the object itself, provides the context for interpreting what we can term the cultural biography of the Pallasboy vessel (Murray 2000; Moore et al 2003, 134; O’Sullivan 2007; Van de Noort and O’Sullivan 2006). Some years ago, writing a book, I had a chance to chat with Cara Murray, Cathy Moore, and Conor McDermott, members of the Irish Archaeological Wetland Unit then based in UCD, about the Pallasboy vessel. Inspired by their ideas, I wrote about the Iron Age vessel a number of times, using the cultural biographical approach. This helps us to think about the object itself and its treatment in the past, which then provides insights into how things can accumulate different meanings and values and how these can change across time.

Firstly, in conception and design, this Iron Age vessel was clearly always intended to be something special. As Ben Geary and the UCC team have explained in this terrific experimental archaeology project, this marvellous Iron Age trough or vessel (probably dating from the last few centuries BC) was a large, carved alder-wood trough, rectilinear in shape (1.3m in length, by 60cm in width), with projecting handles at the end.

It was carved from an unusually thick and mature alder tree (which was c.54 years age) suggesting that it was intended to be impressively and uniquely large. It was possibly a work of several people who came together in its production, as toolmark analysis showed that it was carved using five axes and at least one gouge and the clarity of the toolmarks also show that the timber was green and unseasoned. It would have been very heavy and would have needed several people to move it around, as the UCC team could probably tell you.

We might suspect that the people who made it were hurriedly preparing an item intended for use in an upcoming event, as the unseasoned character of the wood caused a problem when a worrying split developed in the wood during last few hours of its manufacture. Close to the handle, a very fine crack started to develop outwards from the heartwood, as is normal for wood that has been dried rather too fast, but its carvers ingeniously used four tiny, cleverly-spaced wooden wedges to staple this crack together, and to prevent it shearing along the wood grain. This repair definitely occurred during the manufacturing phase, as subsequent carving deliberately reduced the look of the tiny wedges to near invisibility.

During the early years (months?) of the life of the Pallasboy vessel, we might propose that it was probably used for some high-status activity, perhaps bathing, feasting or the display and consumption of fine foods, as befitted such a beautiful and imposing thing. This is suggested by the fact that the toolmarks on its outer surface were pristine and unblurred, suggesting it was not moved around much or roughly handled with ropes or generally handled. As a unique and cherished item, it is conceivable that the vessel was produced for some special event, perhaps a ritual meal associated with a marriage, or an inauguration ceremony or other significant rite of passage, for example, at a much later stage, it has been suggested (perhaps fantastically) that early Irish kings bathed in horses blood upon their inauguration. Indeed, in any case, bathing is a likely function for the Pallasboy vessel as early Irish mythological sources place great store on washing, bathing and indeed the body itself in early Irish society.

As the Iron Age Pallasboy trough matured and aged, it was to shift in meaning again.

After a time (which is unlikely to have been a long time) a second crack appeared along the edge of the vessel where its narrow sides reduced its strength. Perhaps this occurred as the wood was alternately wet and dried, which is something that alder wood tolerates poorly (for all its suitability of holding food and drink, because it doesn’t impart tastes to liquids held within it, it doesn’t like alternate wetting and drying). This new crack was also repaired using small, carved ash-wood panels on the inner and outer surface, secured by slight wooden ties through perforations in the vessel’s sides.

But it seems possible that this crack somehow changed the meaning of the object, perhaps spoiling or tainting it in some way. For a time, it was to be employed in a more domestic or everyday context, such as salting, curing, tanning or dyeing. This is suggested by evidence for fire-scorching along the top edge which definitely occurred after the second repair, implying then that the trough was used in cooking or the heating of water; small stone chips found in the vessel might suggest the use of hot-stone technology for heating water, perhaps for washing and bathing.

The death of the vessel came inevitably, as it does to all things, including ourselves, and by this stage, we can see that the perception and social meaning of the vessel had changed once more – leading to its structured deposition in a bog pool. At the end of its life (or intriguingly, perhaps at the end of life of the person most associated with it, a king or chieftain, or an important woman like a queen or wise woman perhaps; an anthropological perspective suggests that sometimes objects are so deeply connected with people that they must die too), people used a series of withy ropes (some of which were found still wrapped around the vessel) to carry the heavy object out into the bog, where environmental evidence suggests that they placed it in waterlogged, reedy conditions (plant macrofossil and beetle studies indicates a bog pool of stagnant water).

Withe, side, rim, stake

The end was near now, and struggling in the wet conditions of the bog’s surface, they propped the Pallasboy vessel upright using long, vertical pegs driven into the peat, and they also pinned it down using by a forked hazel branch (a wooden vessel would tend to float in water, especially when old, dry and seasoned). Radiocarbon dating of the branch indicates that this intriguing Iron Age vessel was placed in the bog about 197 BC- AD 68.

Now, this event of burial is interesting in a number of ways. It would seem to be similar to the treatment of Iron Age human corpses, or bog bodies, recently discovered in the region. An Iron Age body recently found in Croghan Bog, Co. Offaly (6km to the south-east) was of a high-status, well-fed individual who was executed and also pinned into position using hazel withies (Ahlstrom 2006).

There are potential interesting metaphorical links between the biographies of Iron Age wooden vessels and of Iron Age human bodies. Both wooden vessels and bodies are obviously associated with food consumption, and with washing and bathing, one being done inside the other indeed. However, we also can imagine that Iron Age people understood both a wooden vessel and a human body as being containers of fluids—fluids like blood, milk, menstrual blood, semen, stomach bile and so on, all connected with life, fertility, sex and of course death).

And most spookily of all, we should remember that some societies don’t make the distinction between human subject and passive object like we do.

Was the Iron Age Pallasboy a thing or a person?

Finally, the story of the Pallasboy vessel goes on, long after it was put in a bog, and now years after it was dug up again in a bog, and it is now inspiring in 2015 amazing craftsmanship. This project is leading to the re-creation of a wooden vessel that was once so very important, to some mysterious, long vanished people, who died—like the Pallasboy vessel died—two thousand years ago.

Some further reading

Ahlstrom, D. 2006 Bog find calls for new view of our Iron Age ancestors, The Irish Times Saturday, January 7, 2006.

Moore, C., Murray, C., Stanley, M. & McDermott, C. 2003. Bogland surveys in Ireland: forty shades of brown, in J. Fenwick (ed.) Lost and Found: discovering Ireland’s past, Wordwell, Dublin, 123–38.

Murray, C. 2000 ‘A wooden vessel from Co. Westmeath, Ireland’, NewsWARP 28, 7–8.

O’Sullivan, A. 2007 Exploring past people’s interaction with wetland environments in Ireland. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 107C, 147-203.

Van de Noort, R. and O’Sullivan, A. 2006 Rethinking Wetland Archaeology. Duckworth.

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