Thus I found myself, wearing an orange hi-viz vest in the middle of a stripped bog. The sun was shining and there was a pleasant breeze. I was on my knees, crawling through the black soil, scooping up with my bare hands pieces of rust-colored, crumbly rock. It was a day out, a field-trip with friends and colleagues. They were engaged in similar activities, devoting their attention to the ground bellow them.
You may wonder what all of this is about.
In short we spent a few hours of the day collecting bog ore, a most peculiar form of mining.
Many might be surprised by this, while some known this quite well. Bogs produce iron ore in the form of a sediment, a hydrated iron oxide, which forms bellow the surface. It can range in form from rusty muck, to large lumps of crumbly orange rock, interlaced with layers blue-grey. Once harvested, the ore can even regenerate itself within a generation. It is most fascinating stuff.
The bog is a peculiar place, not quite from this world.
Some might see the bog as a place between the worlds, the world of the living and the world of the dead. Some also see them as boundaries between kingdoms and an instrument in the gruesome rituals of kingship. Opinions on the existence of these worlds aside, the bogs do halt the decay of many things, wood, leather, butter, weapons and even bodies. Human bodies. Bogs make iron and bogs make mummies. Archaeologists love bogs.
1,2 million hectares of Ireland happens to be covered in bogs. That is 1/6th of the Island. The only country in Europe which is even boggier is Finland. Some bogs you can walk across, observing the ever so slightly surreal landscape painted by black earth, silver waters, green moss, purple heather, golden heath and white bog cotton. I am quite partial to a stroll across the bog. I enjoy the colours, the softness of the ground beneath my feet and the mild feeling of solitude provided by the inhospitable landscape and distance of cities.
Other bogs bogs are even more hostile to mankind. They are so waterlogged that standing on the edge feels like standing on a waterbed. You can push the limb of a tree in these and it will disappear into the depths. You wonder if a wrong step will plunge you into the dark abyss, where you will slowly join the other mummified bog bodies. One more human handbag, buried in the peat. We do not go into these bogs. The birds made them their realm. They like the peace and quiet just as well.
Yesterday was the 17th of May. Somewhere far to the northeast of us, somebody was celebrating a national holiday, but not us. Instead we had our own special day, as we went for a stroll across a devastated bog, hunting for iron ore.
We found ourselves in the Midlands, in a bog owned by Bord na Móna, an semi state-owned Irish energy provider. What do energy companies have to do with bogs? Since peat has been used as a fuel for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, it has in more recent times been the target of industrial exploitation. It fueled homes and stoves, turned into pellets it even drives turbines which provide some of the country’s electricity. Use of resources led to over-exploitation and whole hectares of peatland were bereft of their lush cover, revealing the black innards beneath. The practice is now gradually being abandoned, hopefully due to the realisation, that the destruction of bogs is a considerable environmental disaster with a possible impact on climate change.
But the scars of the past remain, and we visited one of these scars, exploiting some of its other resources.
We were issued bright orange hi vis vests, no doubt a the prerequisite established by some health & safety form, and were given permission to roam the edge of the bog. Standing there after so much time spent in the city, standing in this landscape of contrasting primal colours and a dramatic blue sky, you may start to think that you maybe jumped planets or dimensions.
Looking for bog ore usually involves prodding the ground with iron sticks, gazing into nearby pools and streams in search of rusty sediments and oil slicks. Once found, the lumps of ore have to dug from the wet ground. This is so because the ore forms as a sediment beneath the peat – an ochre sludge, which coagulates into solid lumps.
Since this bog was completely stripped at one point, none of this was necessary. The deposits of ore formed exposed islands in the black soil, occasionally flanked with patches with white bog cotton. This was quite interesting to see, how much there was in a relatively small corner of the bog, and how it was distributed.
Needless to say, there was a lot of ore around the place. Where the ground has been further into a furrow or ditch, one could clearly see that there are whole new layers of ochre clay beneath the black soil, possibly hiding even more nuggets of iron. Looking at this made me think just how rich a source of iron a bog can be. It made me question whether with all of my iron-smelting activities, could I ever make a serious dent in its reserves? Surely, finding enough charcoal would prove a limiting factor far before that.
The fact that all of the the ore was revealed also made collecting very easy. Instead of digging for the lumps, all you needed to do was run your hand across the surface and it would gather into piles, which can then be scooped up into buckets. And many a bucket did we fill. At one point we were thinking if we should have brought a gardening rake or a workshop broom and just swept it all up. Maybe it is good that we did not, since in a few hours we gathered close to half a ton of this iron-enriched muck, and hauling it all back to the van was in fact the biggest challenge.
In the end, I would like to think that we put the already devastated landscape to some use, gathering enough ore to keep feeding the furnaces at the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology for a while longer. Now I just need to put some of it to good use in future smelts, turning dirt into objects of wonder. That will hopefully follow soon.