In Ancient Bones, a Reminder that Northern Ireland’s Ghosts Are Never Far

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They turned up around Halloween, as a roaring storm gripped the wetlands of Northern Ireland and tilled its ground: human bones, sticking up from the tea-colored water in Bellaghy bog, halfway between Derry and Belfast.

The skeletal remains were disconcerting enough. Then investigators saw the flesh.

“The skin was as pink as ours,” said Detective Inspector Nikki Deehan, with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

We know now that the remains — extraordinarily well preserved — belonged to a teenage boy from the Iron Age, held together for thousands of years by the preservative power of the peat bog. But in the weeks before radiocarbon dating rendered the find an archaeological triumph, investigators wrestled with a more uncomfortable possibility: Was the body an echo of not-so-distant history, one with which the small island has yet to fully reckon?

Such is the pallor of grisly discoveries in Northern Ireland. In them is an ominous reminder, one unique to the region’s fragile peace: Ghosts — and bodies — don’t stay buried forever.

Illustrations of that dark reality are everywhere, including in recent, geographically close history. When the Bellaghy bog man first rose from the ground in October, investigators were searching other bogs for other secrets, in the wetlands of County Monaghan. There, a disturbing parallel story bore out, when a much-anticipated search for a different body was abandoned in mid-November.

Investigators had turned over the wet earth searching for the remains of Columba McVeigh, who was shot and killed by the Irish Republican Army and secretly buried in 1975. Mr. McVeigh, who was 19 when he died, is believed to have been executed and dumped in the quiet bog near the Irish border.

He is one of Northern Ireland’s so-called Disappeared, 17 people who were killed and secretly buried by paramilitary groups during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the guerrilla war that plagued the island’s six northern counties for nearly 30 years. In the years since the Good Friday Agreement formally ended that conflict in 1998, an independent commission has recovered 13 of the missing individuals’ remains. For the other four, the search continues.

Other news outlets have noted the geographic juxtaposition of the two searches, one ending in a celebrated, ancient find, another in crushing disappointment.

News organizations were not the only ones to clock such coincidences. Detective Inspector Deehan, noting both the freshness of the body and its geographic location — near the border of County Tyrone, a sectarian hot spot during the Troubles — said investigators consulted with the commission examining cases of the Disappeared when the body was first discovered. They inquired whether the body might be Mr. McVeigh’s.

“They are very certain their intelligence leads to Monaghan,” Detective Inspector Deehan said, and the police were cleared to go ahead with excavating the Bellaghy remains.

It’s a delicate maneuver, especially in this region of evasive truths and elusive closure. The commission for the Disappeared cases is not a legal entity, and any information it receives is not admissible in a court. Its goal, as stated, is purely to assist the families of missing Troubles victims with closure.

“It’s very important that police don’t step into that domain,” the detective inspector said.

As it turned out, there were no grieving families or missing persons reports for the Bellaghy body. After being carefully excavated in November, the remains were radiocarbon dated around Christmas by Queen’s University Belfast. The estimate put him at around 2,300 years old.

“Imagine the resources dedicated to this if radiocarbon wasn’t working,” said Dr. Alastair Ruffell, a forensic geologist at Queen’s University Belfast, who helped with the excavation. Dr. Ruffell also originally thought the body had come to a more recent demise. If radiocarbon technology wasn’t able to determine the age of the remains, he said, the authorities could be off probing a possible murder, unaware any potential crime was centuries old.

The phenomenon of so-called bog bodies dates to around the 17th century, when stunningly preserved, mummified remains began rising — literally — from Northern Europe’s various boglands. It’s fairly common for the bodies to be so well-preserved that they’re mistaken for a more recent victim — Tollund Man, perhaps the most famous of the genre, was initially thought to be a recently missing person when found in Denmark in 1950. His body had held up so well that the creases in his brow were still easily discernible.

The body ejected from Bellaghy bog is a significant one. Geographically, it is the farthest north a well-preserved bog body has yet been discovered in Ireland, Dr. Ruffell said, and it emerged in a little-understood strip of Celtic land that was between two ancient tribes. Among its best-preserved features: fingernails and a fleshy kidney. Its pink skin oxygenized during the excavation and is now the familiar leathery brown associated with the bog bodies that fill museums around Europe.

The discovery is being hailed as a historic find, and the remains will be handled by the National Museums of Northern Ireland. For those, like Detective Inspector Deehan, who work closer to Northern Ireland’s modern dark edges, the archaeological celebration was a welcome break.

“When we’re called out, specifically for body recovery, you’re very cognizant there’s a family there that’s enduring trauma,” he said. “It’s amazing to be part of something where you know there isn’t a grieving family on the side, and you can share these stories.”

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