16 Jun 2016

2000-year-old butter found - and it's still edible

10:49 am on 16 June 2016

A 10kg lump of butter which was dug up out of an Irish bog is believed to be more than 2000 years old - and is still edible.

The 2000-year-old lump of butter.

The 2000-year-old lump of butter. Photo: Cavan County Museum

Local Jack Conway was cutting turf in Emlagh bog, in County Meath, when he came across the massive chunk of butter recently.

After making the discovery he contacted the Cavan County Museum who then analysed the dairy discovery and discovered the 10kg lump of butter was more than 2000 years old.

Savina Donohoe, curator of Cavan County Museum, told the BBC that the white prehistoric butter - which was found 3.6m underground - smelt like a "strong cheese".

"The fact it was buried so deep in the soil indicates that it might have been buried as an offering or a ritual to the gods to keep land and animals safe in the past."

In medieval Ireland a lot of items were buried in bogs as they have excellent preservation properties because of their low temperatures, low oxygen and highly acidic habitat.

Bog butter would normally be found in a wooden box, but this butter was found on its own.

The museum believed that this particular butter was therefore buried as a ritual or an offering, because whoever buried it thought it would never be found again.

Butter, or anything associated with a cow, was seen as a sign of wealth, importance and was valuable.

"Butter was seen as a luxury item back then. People made it with the intention of eating it, or selling it to pay their taxes and rent," Savina added.

"It doesn't smell very nice - it smells like a very strong cheese. You could try to eat some of it but we wouldn't advise it.

"Now that it's above ground it will probably dry up."

The bog butter has been given to the National Museum for preservation.

Assistant keeper in the museum's Irish Antiquities Division Andy Halpin told the Irish Times the discovery was significant because it was found in the Drakerath area where 11 townlands and the boundaries of three ancient kingdoms met.

"These bogs in those times were inaccessible, mysterious places," he said.

"It is at the juncture of three separate kingdoms, and politically it was like a no man's land.

"Theoretically the stuff is still edible - but we wouldn't say it's advisable."

Originally made from cow's milk, bog butter was often buried to preserve it to be dug up at a later date and takes on a wax-like texture through the years.

In a statement on its website, the Cavan Country Museum said bogs were excellent for preservation with low temperatures, low oxygen and highly acidic environments.

"In early medieval Ireland butter was a luxury food often used as a means to pay taxes and rents," the museum said in a statement after the discovery."

The Smithsonian noted in 2009 a 34-kilogram 3,000-year-old oak barrel of bog butter was found in County Kildare, and in 2013 a turf cutter found a 45-kilogram, 5000-year-old chunk was unearthed.