Butter That Stays Good for 3,000 Years



When most people picture Ireland, they picture our characteristic green fields and old stone walls. But Ireland also has lots of bog – the Bog of Allen, where I live, stretches almost a thousand square kilometres across several counties. Bogs are difficult to get through or settle in even today, so they were isolated, mysterious places, where characters in folktales met banshees or other supernatural beings, and a good place for starving and subjugated people to hide, or hide things.

A bog is a natural wetland, like a swamp or marsh – the difference is that the water is very acidic and low in oxygen, so that insects, fungi and even most bacteria can’t survive. Things buried in the bog don’t rot, so it made a clever place to hide things if you could find them again. Farmers here still find trees that fell in centuries ago, the wood stained black but not rotten. Sometimes they find possessions hidden in the bog that their owners never came back for; necklaces, coins, tools, swords. And sometimes they find stores of food, up to 3,000 years old and not only intact, but edible. Specifically, they find butter. 

Bizarre as that sounds, more than 430 caches of butter have been found in bogs, some small as fists, some big as barrels. The aforementioned 3,000-year-old butter weighed more than 35 kilos, the size of a child. And a surprising number of adventurous finders sampled the butter, and reported it delicious.

This doesn’t even count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. This must have been a rather commonplace activity.

So why butter, you ask? A surprising number of foods around the world are preserved by being buried in the ground, but they are usually dried foods in arid climates (cheese in Italy), or sub-Arctic countries where the ground is freezing (salmon in Sweden), or where the food is meant to ferment in some way (eggs in China). In this case it’s waterlogged ground, it would probably disintegrate in the water over time unless it’s naturally waterproof, like fat. 

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