All photos by Philip Bell
Figure 1. A bog butter box unearthed in Castlederg in Northern Ireland, now housed at the Ulster-American museum there.
Something worth ‘spreading’
In our modern age, in order to preserve butter and other dairy foodstuffs, we typically store them in a refrigerator. But, the Scottish and Irish country folk of past centuries had to make do with a very different, though ingenious, method.1 First, they filled up a suitable container with the food item to be preserved—often a wooden pot but sometimes a wicker basket or an animal skin. Something like a muslin cloth seems to have been used to cover the contents or else a fitted wooden lid. They then lowered this into a local peat-bog—this is why these items are often called “bog butter boxes”.2
Figures 1 shows a specimen that was unearthed in a bog in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, now on display at a museum near Omagh.3 I asked one of the curators to tell me more about it and quizzed him on whether the rocky contents of the wooden box were, in fact, ‘fossilized’ butter. He was adamant that this was the case. There is an obvious lesson from this. Since it didn’t take many thousands (let alone millions) of years for this to happen, it should beg the question in our minds “Does it really take such long time periods for fossils to form in history?” In the case of this particular bog butter, the answer is a clear, “No”. If the conditions are right, this kind of thing not only occurs but it can happen quickly—and notice that we’re talking of the hardening into stone of something which itself had no hard parts.
This was something that Charles Darwin thought could not happen, but reports of soft tissue fossilization are now commonplace, even of creatures like jellyfish!4 And finding these items in peat bogs is not uncommon,5 though it should be pointed out that many of the specimens found are not mineralized—although hundreds of years old, they often have the appearance, smell and texture of cold, hard butter. In one case, it’s said that the butter was sold at market as an edible material!6 But, there are other examples of ‘petrified’ butter, some said to date back to the time of Christ. Figure 2 shows a bog butter keg at the Cork Butter Museum (Figure 3) in the Republic of Ireland—it’s exact origin is not known. It was apparently hollowed out from a section of tree trunk and is reported to be 1,000 years old. What is particularly intriguing is that it was found to still have non-mineralized butter on the inside!
Why bury butter?
Archaeologists used to be unsure about the precise nature of the ‘butters’—were they true butter or just degraded adipose (fatty) tissue from animals like sheep. However, a sophisticated chemical analysis of nine Scottish bog butters has established that most of them are true butter or dairy fat.7
As to why people should have stored butter (or similar products, like lard and tallow8) in peat bogs, the preservation of a valuable food for later consumption, perhaps during winter, is an obvious reason. The anaerobic conditions in a peat bog (oxygen is low or absent) and the relatively constant, cool temperatures are known to retard decay. Presumably, this would keep the bog butters from turning rancid. Other possible reasons put forward to explain the practice are that it might have improved the butter’s flavour, or that it was part of some sort of ritual, though the latter seems rather unlikely.
Certainly, there is plenty of evidence for these methods having continued for centuries, through medieval times and beyond. It may even have continued as late as the mid-nineteenth century in upland areas of Ireland.9 From the evidence of bog butter specimens found elsewhere, it is clear that similar practices were common in many parts of Scotland too, as early as the second century AD.10 One of these (radiocarbon-dated to AD 246–346) was discovered in Argyllshire by peat cutters in 1879. The researchers state, “The bog butter completely fills the vessel and the top surface is domed.”11 This is exactly what can be seen in the specimen in Figure 1 and is a common feature of many such archaeological artefacts—the butter is now (literally) rock-solid, a fact worth spreading around to give pause for thought to those who are wedded to the long-ages idea of fossil formation.
Figure 2. A keg of bog butter, thought to be from early Medieval times (around AD 1000), on display at the Cork Butter Museum.
Figure 3. The Cork Butter Museum, Republic of Ireland.12
References and notes
- It was not limited to these countries, in fact, and has been described in Finland, Iceland, Morocco and Kashmir, Ritchie, J., A keg of “bog butter” from Skye, Proc. Soc. Antiquaries of Scotland 75:5–22, 1940–41. Return to text.
- Other words used to describe them are ‘mether’ and ‘keg’. Return to text.
- The Ulster-American Folk Park, Castletown, Omagh, N. Ireland. Return to text.
- See: Catchpoole, D., Hundreds of jellyfish fossils! Creation 25(4):32–33, 2003. Return to text.
- In 2004, it was reported that more than 270 specimens had been discovered, some as columns of ‘butter’ a metre high and weighing up to 50 kg, New Scientist 181 (2439): 18, 20 March, 2004. Return to text.
- Information from the Irish Peatland Con-servation Council; ipcc.ie/infobogbutter.html, last accessed 6 August, 2010. Return to text.
- Berstan, R. et al., Characterisation of ‘bog butter’ using a combination of molecular and isotopic techniques, Analyst 129:270–275, 2004. (the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry). Return to text.
- Strictly speaking, lard is pig fat and tallow is fat from cattle or sheep—both are solid at normal room temperatures. Return to text.
- According to information on display at the Ulster American museum, N. Ireland. Return to text.
- Earwood, C., Two early historic bog butter containers, Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. 121:231–240, 1991. Return to text.
- Ref. 10, p. 233. Return to text.
- Referring to the practice of preserving butter in bogs, they state: “Butter produced in this way was probably an acquired taste, but one which the early Irish may well have preferred.” Return to text.
Isn't the soft-tissue fossilization rather like creatures embedded in amber?
Soft tissue can be preserved in several, quite distinct ways. Sometimes, mineral replacement of the original tissue has occurred (even preserving detail at the cellular level, especially in the case of plants). An example of this occurred with the preservation of stomach contents in fossil salamanders.
Alternatively, spectacular preservation of soft-tissues in a more 'mummified' state may occur. The obvious example of this is the still soft and stretchy tissues of dinosaur bones (type 'soft tissue' in creation.com search engine to find many more articles about this).
Amber is yet another special case, where plant-derived resins have entombed parts of plants, insects, spiders or even small vertebrates. Some fascinating recent examples are here (where clues about plant chemistry are preserved), mammalian hair, and a species of ant. Intriguing recent research has helped explain how many marine creatures are also found buried in amber. It turns out that the process of amber formation requires water, and lot of it; something that fits wonderfully with a global Flood scenario.
This article employs the deceptive technique of what is called a ‘straw man’ augment. First, it says that evolution requires mineralization; second, it shows that things do not always get mineralized, supposedly making an argument against evolution.
This is deceptive because the modern theory of evolution does not at all require things to be mineralized. Darwin may have thought that, but it has no bearing on the current discussion.
Thank you for your enquiry about this article.
I am familiar with straw man arguments (see subsection of this article) and we certainly seek to avoid these.
With respect, you have, yourself inadvertently made a straw man statement, where you state “it says evolution requires mineralization.” The article did not make this statement, neither was it inferred or intended.
You repeat this straw man, stating further “the modern theory of evolution does not at all require things to be mineralized”. I agree, it doesn’t, but this was not stated or inferred in the article.
However, it is certainly true that evolutionists are often excited, surprised and even shocked (words in italics all used by evolutionary palaeontologists themselves) by the fossilization of soft-body tissues and/or the lack of mineralization in fossils (see e.g. preservation of soft squid tissues, jellyfish fossils, and unfossilized dinosaur tissue, see here, and the links at the foot of the article). This is because fossilization, as portrayed in textbooks used in high schools and universities, is almost exclusively said to involve mineralisation (whether calcification, silification, or petrification—all terms used to describe the replacement of original tissue by various minerals). Moreover, the same textbooks describe this process as occurring over vast time periods.
For this reason, the article on petrified butter was offered as a curiosity but also something to cause people to think about the process of fossilization. Is this something that need take a long period of time (as most think) or is it more a matter of having the right conditions (one might say ingredients’) for fossilization to occur. If the latter, then clearly it can happen quite rapidly.
If examples of this kind really have “no bearing on the current discussion”, by which I assume you mean the veracity or otherwise of molecules-to-man evolution, consider the following. Why are the vast majority of people, in audiences where such examples are shared by CMI speakers, amazed and fascinated? The reason is that they can readily see that these things call into question the ‘fossilization facts’ they were taught during their education. And while the majority of the people I refer to are laypeople, I have personally encountered many a scientist (including to PhD level) who has also expressed the same surprise, including lectures that I have occasionally given to university audiences where almost all of those present held evolutionary beliefs.
So, again with respect to you, no deception was intended in this article on rock solid butter, nor do I think it will have deceived anyone. The last sentence merely offered the rather modest suggestion that the facts detailed should “give pause for thought to those who are wedded to the long-ages idea of fossil formation.”