Two county Co. Offaly men are in the media spotlight this morning after uncovering a large quantity of bog butter. Brian Clancy and his uncle Joe unearthed the find while working at Ballard Bog, near Tullamore, Co. Offaly on Tuesday. The bog butter was found in a large wooden vessel measuring 0.3m (1ft) in diameter and about 0.6m (2ft) high. Carving marks are visible around the edges of the vessel, which appears to have had a removable lid and handles with holes, possibly for carrying. According to the finders, the total weight of the bog butter and container was 50 KG (104lb) and it was buried at a depth of about 2 metres (seven feet).
Bog butter is a waxy substance found buried in peat bogs, particularly in Ireland and the UK. It is normally found in wooden containers and it appears to have been an attempt to extend the life of dairy products through a very basic form of refrigeration. The custom of burying butter in bogs dates from as early as the second or third century A.D, and possibly even as early as the Iron Age. An account of Irish food written by Dinely in 1681 contains the following description ‘Butter, layed up in wicker baskets, mixed with a sort of garlic and buried for some time in a bog to make a provision of a high taste for Lent’.
This suggests one of the reasons for burial of butter in bogs was to produce a special type of butter made for a certain season of the year. The storage over a period would be necessary to allow the added flavour to penetrate the fat and flavour the butter evenly. Burial in a bog would ensure protection from daytime heat and keep the butter as cool as possible, while the exclusion of air, and the antiseptic qualities of the turf would prevent mould growth.
Bog butter has been found contained within carved wooden tubs, kegs, dishes, bowls, troughs, stave-built (coopered) vessels or wicker containers with a cloth covering; many of these recycled from their original purpose to hold the butter. The scraped-out stomach of a bullock or pig is also known to have been used. In the modern day, when bog butter is recovered from its longterm storage it tends to be spongy and porous and has the appearance of having been placed into its container in several lumps.
Further reading: Earwood, Caroline 1993 Domestic Wooden Artefacts. University of Exeter Press.