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Mysterious Figures from the Bog

2 Oct 2023

A Celebration of the Ralaghan Idol at Cavan County Museum, August 18, 2023


Each year, Heritage Week returns to remind us of the wealth of archaeology that exists in Ireland and the value inherent in engaging the public with this resource. The Ralaghan idol, a Bronze Age (c. 3000 years old) wooden figure discovered in Ralaghan Bog, Shercock, is a perfect example of this rich heritage, and formed the focal point of the ‘Mysterious Figures from the Bog’ Heritage Week 2023 event which we held at Cavan County Museum last August. Providing a chance to engage with a replica of the idol and attend a related talk on wooden anthropomorphic figures by the IPeAAT team, the event not only stimulated wonderful creative responses from younger participants, but also insightful discussions on important topics such as prehistoric belief systems, customs, crafts, gender identity and the past significance of peatlands.

 Discovered during peat cutting in the early 1900s by one Mr Halpin, the Ralaghan idol is an anthropomorphic figure carved from yew and standing just over a metre in height. Once thought to have stood upright in a pedestal, the figure was found buried face down in Ralaghan bog, not dissimilar to the ways in which some bog bodies were deposited. The idol is one of many wooden figures discovered in wetlands throughout Europe, its closest counterpart perhaps being the idol uncovered in Ballachulish, Scotland, which also possesses an accentuated pelvic region with a perforation at the centre. While the figures vary in appearance, Bryony Coles [1] observes that some, including the Ralaghan idol, share similar motifs, such as asymmetry of features, a ‘slighting’ to the left side of the face, and sexual ambiguity.

In August 2022, craftsman Mark Griffiths carved a replica of the Ralaghan figure from an oak roundwood as part of the St Anne’s Park Community Archaeology (Rose Festival). This reconstruction of the idol and the replica Bronze Age axes, which Griffiths originally used to craft it, were on display as part of the ‘Mysterious Figures from the Bog’ event.

The Ralaghan replica prompted those attending the Cavan event to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the idol in antiquity. Younger participants puzzled over the significance of the figure while recreating it with colouring pencils and eco modelling dough. At the same time, interesting discussions arose amongst adult participants concerning the gender identity of the figure and how gender might have been considered differently in the Bronze Age, with some viewing it as a female form and others as male. Participants also entertained the idea that the figure was intended to be both male and female.

Participants with prior knowledge of the Ralaghan idol revealed there was a general feeling amongst local people that it had been a fertility icon, and that women hoping to conceive even came to Cavan County Museum on occasion to touch the older replica of the Ralaghan figure that resides there. In the same vein, another visitor likened the marks around the pubic area of the idol to caesarean scars.

Conversations also considered the relationship between figures and bog bodies, and the possibility that the idol was thought to represent the demise of a significant individual within the community, such as a king or queen. A number of participants suggested that the idol might have acted as a protective charm against negative supernatural entities or influences, including those thought to emanate from the bog itself. Others suggested that the idol may have been viewed variously as: possessing medicinal properties; a signpost marker for those traversing the bog; a voodoo effigy; a method of testing the preserving qualities of the bog; and even as a sconce for a candle.

The selection of the replica Bronze Age axes on display also stimulated conversation about the types of tools people used in the past and a recognition of their similarity to modern-day axes, gouges and chisels, the design of which has not changed much in almost 5000 years. 

All of these discussions provided food for thought on the lifeways and beliefs of prehistoric people, the curious relationships they had with their peatland environment and perhaps a moment to reflect on how we engage with these themes in our own lives today. They also demonstrate the immense value inherent in this type of knowledge sharing for the public and heritage practitioners alike, not only for its capacity to enhance our understanding of past peatland communities, but also to show us what we might learn from them.


A million thanks to Holly Roche and Johann Farrelly at Cavan County Museum for supporting and facilitating this wonderful event, and to all the visitors who participated so fully.


[1] Coles, B. 1990. Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures from Britain and Ireland, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56, pp. 315-333


For more on this story contact:

Dr Claire Nolan, IPeAAT Postdoctoral Researcher

Irish Peatland Archaeology Across Time (IPeAAT)