The bone vault: poetry and palaeontology of the bogs

How do the approaches of the poet and the scientist differ? Can one learn from another, or are they better kept apart?


Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney at the University College Dublin in 2009. (Photo by <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" target="_blank" href="">Flickr user Sean O'Connor</a>, <a target="_blank" href="" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>, <a target="_blank" href="">Link</a>)Recently I found myself enjoying TV documentaries on successive nights about similar subjects: one the Irish Iron Age “bog body” Cashel Man; the other the “bog poems” of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013. Both films were trying to bring these “human fossils” back to life but in different ways: through science and through poetry.

I’m used to the scientific approach because I edit the Elsevier journal Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, which often carries papers on the archaeological fossils of bogs, but I also developed a liking for Seamus Heaney’s poems on a long “sabbatical” from palaeontology while school teaching in rural Africa in the 1980s and 90s. It was odd to read about the bogs and lakes of distant Ireland where all around was baking savannah, but the power of his prose made me homesick for the rain and evoked the preservative abilities of the bog — as a “bone vault,” in Heaney’s words.

The documentaries set me thinking. How do the methods of the poet and the scientist differ? What different understanding do we gain when a poet tells us about an archaeological site rather than a palaeontologist or an archaeologist? The relationship between science and art in Heaney’s bog poems has been explored before by the literary geographer Dianne Meredith (Meredith 1999). She believes that science can be greatly aided by fictional accounts like novels, myths and poetry bringing a “… stronger objectivity, inclusive not only of the physical environment, but also of the social, psychological, and the historical climate …”

So could the descriptive and analytical qualities of poets and palaeontologists be brought together to achieve this “stronger objectivity?” Could the traditional methods of scientific description be augmented with poetry?

In an obituary on the day of Seamus Heaney’s death, the Irish critic Colm Tóibín wrote that during the northern Irish “troubles,” Heaney used poetry to offer an alternative world. Part of that alternative world was the wild pre-Christian past of Ireland preserved in the bogs. Poems like “Viking Dublin,” “Bone Dreams,” “Bog Queen,” “Strange Fruit,” “Punishment,” and “North” bring this ancient Ireland to life. One of the most complex, “Kinship,” contains startling language — lists of phrases to describe the bog and its fossils:

Quagmire, swampland, morass:
The slime kingdoms,
Domains of the cold-blooded,
Of mud pads and dirtied eggs.

But bog
Meaning soft,
The fall of windless rain,
Pupil of amber.

Ruminant ground,
Digestion of mollusc
And seed-pod,
Deep pollen-bin.

Earth-pantry, bone vault,
Sun-bank, embalmer
Of votive goods
And sabred fugitives.

Insatiable bride.
Casket, midden,
Floe of history.

In the poem 'The Tollund Man', Heaney described in poetic detail the features of the corpse of a man preserved in a peat bog in the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. Radiocarbon dating indicated that he lived in the 4th century BCE. (Photo by Sven Rosborn, Public Domain)Heaney was fascinated by the way that the bog collects and hides things so that it becomes a store of artefacts preserved through strange chemical processes. As a palaeontologist, I can relate to the multi-coloured way Heaney evokes the idea of preservation because his images of “slime kingdoms,” “domains of the cold-blooded,” “earth-pantry,” “bone vault,” are so vivid. But he’s not just idly playing with language: for example “ruminant ground” seems to be saying that the bog will absorb and ingest these magical artefacts, but then bring them up again. As farmers went to take peat for fuel — as Heaney himself did as a young boy — the things the bog has hidden away are suddenly revealed again by the peat spade, like a palaeontologist uncovering a fossil.

In the poem “Bog Queen,” Heaney seems to imagine himself as a woman buried in the bog, reduced over years to fragments and patterns like braille; but then suddenly in the last part of the poem, the woman’s head is revealed: “barbered and stripped by a turf-cutter's spade”:

My body was braille
For the creeping influences:
Dawn suns groped over my head
And cooled at my feet.

Maybe the creeping influences are Heaney’s way of picturing the chemical processes — familiar to a palaeontologist — that preserved the woman’s body. He describes these a lot. In “The Tollund Man,” the “dark juices” turn a buried man “to a saint's kept body.”

Tollund Man at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. Forensic scientists say he was buried with the noose around his neck after being hanged. (Image provided to Wikimedia Commons by Nationalmuseet, <a target="_blank" href=""> CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)Heaney’s eye for detail is amazing. He describes the hollows and spaces amongst the bones of exhumed bodies vividly and stomach-churningly. In the Grauballe Man:

The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.

A wound in his body
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

To me as a scientist, the ball of the heel being “like a basalt egg” is very easy to visualise, almost better than a photograph. “The dark elderberry place” – to describe the void within a wound — isn’t literal (there are no elderberries) but still seems to transmit some of the oddness of something we were perhaps never supposed to see.

So the poet brings vitality and depth to the descriptions and a challenge to the reader to see the remains as human, to evoke sympathy and to give the bog almost a living presence. It forces your imagination to work a little – the muscles of the imagination are flexed.

The scientific approach

How does science approach the bog people and the evolution of the bogs? As you might imagine, it could not be more different. The scientific paper that introduces the Irish Iron Age “bog body” Cashel Man (Kelly, 2012) describes the position of the body “on the right side with the legs flexed slightly.” It had been placed “…on the bog surface possibly in a pool, and two hazel stakes marked the place of deposition.” The language is less vivid than Heaney’s and understandably is shorn of what would be regarded by scientists as subjective. There’s a lot of interpretation of features, for example “…cuts to the back seemingly inflicted by an axe” and the “…right arm had been broken in antiquity by a sharp blow, and the spine was broken in two places.”

A more detailed look, this time at another Irish bog body, known as “Oldcroghan Man” (Plunkett et al, 2009), used plant fossils and pollen through the bog’s many layers to reconstruct the environment of the dead man. The record of pollen shows intensive human activity during the Later Bronze Age. A recent paper on the water mill at Kilbegly (Overland and O’Connell, 2011) in my own journal, the Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, used similar methods as well as radiocarbon dating to reconstruct changes in vegetation during the early Medieval period and before. The detail of the reconstruction in Overland and O’Connell (2011) is extraordinary, with multiple pollen diagrams (essentially histograms which indicate pollen abundances through the peat layers) revealing the interplay between different vegetation types and climate change.

A case for connecting poetry and science

But perhaps there is a case for connecting poetry and scientific description? Elsevier has led attempts to diversify the information that traditional scientific papers offer, for example through the Article of the Future. I was involved in this initiative, with a paper of mine being amongst the first to be converted to an “Article of the Future.” The idea is to provide, alongside the traditional text and diagrams of a scientific paper, interactive maps and multimedia, to provide an “interactive, engaging reading experience.”

Perhaps the sheer wonder of scientific discovery is sometimes underplayed by scientists. I’m reminded of Watson and Crick's classic paper on the structure of DNA, which famously understated that the structure “suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Could the extraordinary nature of some of the things that we as scientists are privileged to see not benefit from description that does them justice? Expanding the “reading experience” might mean providing links from the online version of a scientific paper to artistic impressions (paintings or poems) of relevant discoveries – a new dinosaur fossil or “bog body.” As Dianne Meredith says in her 1999 paper, poetry can “…reveal central themes of the environment beyond those articulated by purely scientific investigation…,” and she notes how the high resolution of science can sometimes “…conceal rather than reveal patterns and processes … .”

Perhaps it’s time to widen the scope of the scientific paper?


Poetry from New Selected Poems 1966-1987 by Seamus Heaney was reprinted with permission from Faber & Faber Ltd.


Written by

Michael Stephenson, PhD

Written by

Michael Stephenson, PhD

Prof. Mike Stephenson is Chief Scientist at the British Geological Survey, the UK's national geoscience and data centre, with 520 scientists and technologists. He began his career as a school teacher in rural Africa and stayed there for nearly 10 years but returned to Britain to pursue research in the Middle East and Asia, including highlights in Oman, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. He received a BSc in Geology from Imperial College and an MSc and PhD in Stratigraphy from Sheffield University.

Mike has professorships at Nottingham and Leicester universities. He has published over 80 peer-reviewed papers while serving on the editorial boards of several journals and as Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. His latest book, Shale Gas and Fracking: The Science Behind the Controversy, was published by Elsevier in March 2015.


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