National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Medieval Christian Book Discovered in Ireland Bog

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
July 26, 2006
 
A thousand-year-old Book of Psalms has been discovered by a construction worker in a bog in Ireland.

The eagle-eyed worker was using a backhoe to dig up potting soil in central Ireland last week when he spotted the leather-bound book.

Experts called to the site were amazed to find an ancient Psalter Book of Psalms lying in the mud. The archaeologists won't say exactly where the book was found until they are finished investigating the site.

About 20 pages long and written in Latin, the book has been dated to between A.D. 800 and 1000.

It is the first early medieval text to be discovered in Ireland in 200 years, the archaeologists say.

The book was found open, perhaps rather portentously, to Psalm 83, in which God hears of nations' attempts to wipe out the name of Israel.

(Read update: "Newfound Book of Psalms Doesn't Predict Doom, Experts Say" [July 27, 2006].)

"Staggering" Find

Experts are hailing this as one of the greatest finds in Ireland in recent history.

"It is not so much the fragments themselves but what they represent that is of such staggering importance," said Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, in a statement.

"In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the Early Christian civilization of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland."

No one knows how this precious book ended up in a peat bog. But the damp, acidic environment appears to have helped preserve the document, experts say.

"The tannic acid in the bog is a natural preservative for skin and leather," said Douglas Edwards, a biblical archaeologist at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

Early Christianity in Ireland

Christianity is considered to have arrived in Ireland around the fourth or fifth century A.D. with St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

(See a country profile with Ireland facts, maps, videos, and more.)

By the sixth century Christianity was well established, and many monasteries had sprung up across Ireland.

"The most likely source of this manuscript is probably from one of the monasteries and could be associated with someone who lost it or had it taken from him or her," Edwards, of Puget Sound, said.

He also notes that the book dates to the early medieval period known as the Dark Ages, when Europe was in turmoil and many religious manuscripts were destroyed.

But books in Ireland fared better than most during this time, as this find testifies.

"Irish monks preserved a lot of ancient manuscripts up until around 1200 A.D.," Edwards said.

Book of Kells

The book is now being stored in refrigeration at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

So far experts have been concentrating on studying the page that was left exposed.

Next they have to identify the safest way to turn the pages without damaging or destroying them. It may be many months before scholars get to see a new page.

From what scholars have managed to read so far they believe it is an early Christian Psalter written on vellum, a parchment made from animal skin. The book was bound in leather.

Edwards says it was possible that the book was made in Ireland, but it is just as likely that it came from abroad.

"Irish monks were celebrated for their ability to create wonderful illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, and they produced innumerable and diverse types of works," he said.

Once the manuscript has been conserved, it will be displayed in the early Christian gallery of the National Museum of Ireland.

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.