Container with Bog Butter

01 June 2010

News Type:
Find of the Month

This wooden dish containing the remains of 'bog butter' was found near Durness in northwest Sutherland in 1969 during peat cutting. It has been radiocarbon dated to AD 960-1260. The wooden dish was carved from an oak trunk, with the interior more carefully finished than the exterior. It may have been used for other fucntion before being filled with butter and placed in a peat bog. It measures730 mm in length.

Wooden artefacts and organic matter rarely survive unless conditions are favourable. Peat bogs provide the necessary waterlogged conditions, and provide valuable evidence of objects and food which are not preserved elsewhere. Over 270 examples of bog butter has been found in peat bogs from Ireland and Scotland, with over half of them in a variety of wooden containers including kegs or dishes such as this one. The earliest dated bog butter from Scotland is a keg from Morvern, Argyllshire which dates to AD140-247, but there may be even earlier examples. The practice lasted a long time in Ireland, with examples being offered for sale in the 19th century, but it is unclear if it survived as long in Scotland. Unfortunately if finds are not kept waterlogged on discovery, they disintegrate, so many examples have been lost or are in poor condition.

Chemical analysis of some butter shows that some derives from milk but others possibly from animal fat. The reasons for placing the butter in peat bogs are still uncertain, but in days before refrigeration, preservation would be a likely reason. However, whether this was for food to eat or fat for greasing is unclear, especially since experimental archaeology has shown the taste is unpleasant to modern palates ('tasting like old spermaceti' was one verdict). Another theory suggests ritual deposition. The Durness example dates to a time when the Norse had settled in this area, and one theory is that it may have use as a tax payment - a practice known from Norse documentary sources.

Further information:

Joanna Close Brooks 1984. 'Some objects from peat bogs,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 114, pp. 580-1. Available on-line.

Caroline Earwood 1991. 'Two early historic bog butter containers,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 121, pp. 231-40.  Available on-line.

Caroline Earwood 1993. 'The dating of wooden troughs and dishes,' Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 123, pp. 355-62. Available on-line.

Caroline Earwood 1997. 'Bog Butter: a two thousand year history.' Journal of Irish Archaeology 8 (1997), pp. 25-42.

Buried Butter - from virtual exhibition of EU Cultural Landscape project.

Picture © National Museums Scotland. Licensor


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