When his mechanical digger turned up a fresh-looking torso in 2003, the farmer fixing the drainage ditch in a central Ireland bog thought he'd maybe dredged up last week's murder victim.
He called the local police. There was evidence of foul play — the man had been decapitated, his nipples mutilated — but the archeologists who were called in next determined it wasn't a crime committed the prior week, or even the year before. Researchers named the body Old Croghan Man, for the nearby Croghan Hill. He, like others found in bogs — wetlands that accumulate deposits of dead plant material known as peat — was likely the victim of a ritual killing. And he was more than 2,000 years old.
Bill Kenny lives a few miles away on a fourteen-acre bog his family has owned for decades. When he heard the news, Kenny thought, "Well, the peat must be good for something."
Peat, the rotting, carbon-rich material that makes up bogland, had always been good for something. For centuries, the soil has been dried and burned as fuel, rubbed onto skin to allay minor burns and scrapes, used in spa baths throughout central Europe and credited with the miraculous preservation of dozens of Iron Age bodies, like Old Croghan Man.
Soon after the discovery near Croghan Hill, Kenny started reading books on peat and baleonology, the science of medicinal springs and soils. He remembered his mother massaging the soil into her skin, using it as a catchall for pain and irritations. Kenny put on a pair of "wellies," or rain boots. He walked into his bog, scooped up some wet, brown peat and started experimenting with putting the soil into anti-aging creams.
In 2008, Kenny closed the construction business he owned with his four sons and founded Ógra Skincare. Ógra — the Irish word for "youth" — now markets a range of bog-born anti-aging products, starting with the Peat Face and Body Mask: 1.7 ounces for $66.
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Bogs, which are common throughout Ireland, are like cold swamps. Dense and waterlogged, they're made up of peat, which, as the bog grows, gets pushed deeper and farther away from sources of oxygen. With cool temperatures and no air, the bacteria that break down matter cannot multiply. The deeper you go in a bog, the greater peat's preservative power. Sink farther, and you'll find the freshest corpse.
"It's a very, very strange type of landscape," says Ole Nielsen, director of the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. The Silkeborg houses two bog bodies, including a man found in 1950 by a Danish family who struck him while cutting peat for fuel. Tollund Man is considered the world's best-preserved bog body. Despite being more than 2,000 years old, stubble hairs cover his chin and laugh lines mark his forehead.
"Most visitors get very silent because it's very obvious that it's a human being," says Nielsen. "The knowledge of this being a 2,300-year-old man lying there as if he had fallen asleep only one hour ago…that's quite touching."
Tollund Man, agrees Nielsen, is a testament to peat's uncanny preservative powers — but he's also an excellent example of the parts of humans that peat fails to keep intact.
As peat putrefies, it creates an acidic environment — similar to the process of fermentation. Rotting plants make tannins, among them humic acid, which preserve skin, hair and clothing remarkably well. But humic acid has the inverse effect on the calcium in bones. While the faces of bog bodies look much as they did centuries ago, their skeletons are rubbery and shapeless, and in the case of Tollund Man, his body's nothing more than a soft mass beneath a celebrated head.
Tannins also make great colorists; traditionally, they've been used to tan leather. The skin of Tollund Man, like his brethren, is deep brown, and his cropped hair red.
Dr. Andrew T. Chamberlain, co-author of "Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies," says it's like cooking a turkey.
"When you roast meat it darkens in color, and peat causes the same reaction," he says. "I wouldn't recommend eating a bog body though."
When asked if using peat on live skin for, say, five years would have the same darkening effect, Chamberlain was doubtful. Bog bodies turn up tanned because they've been lolling in peat for thousands of years. Chamberlain said that perhaps with long-term use the same could happen with live skin, but he'd never heard of peat being used in face cream before, so it was hard to say.
Kenny says he's not worried about the tanning potential of Ógra's peat products. People won't live long enough, nor use the Peat Face Mask long enough, for that to happen, he says: "I think anything would change color over thousands of years."
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Ógra is not the only company trying to score profits from peat. New York-based Ur Irish Botanicals harvests the peat for its facial masks from a small bog in County Tipperary, and then ships it in airtight containers to online stores serving the U.S. market. CVS and Amazon sell Lumene's Arctic Touch Deep Cleansing Peat Mask at $9.99 for 3.4 fluid ounces. Napier Herbalists, a naturals company based in Edinburgh, describes their peat facial cream as "highly nutritious and uplifting."
Some peat companies aren't limiting themselves to facial masks and body creams. Based in Canada, Back to the Earth Naturals sells a tampon-like applicator packed with the rotting plant material. Vagipeat is inserted vaginally and dissolves directly into the bloodstream, promoting feminine health and cleanliness.
"I've done it anally, as well," says head of marketing and sales Carmel DiPardo, who began applying peat to her skin as a pain reliever years ago, after she was in a bad motorcycle accident. DiPardo says the industry's move to natural beauty and therapeutic products has been swift and sudden over the past few years, and that includes peat.
"This is the natural healing time," says DiPardo.
But some entrepreneurs are focused on researching whether the claims made about peat and anti-aging have any validity.
When Maria Prunty founded Prunty Beauty, she wanted to have the peat from her bog tested before she would claim that the beauty products for sale on her website defied aging. It was a matter of conscience, she says.
One day last July, wearing knee-high rain boots, Prunty trumped out into her family's bog in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and filled a glass jar with peat water. She put the jar in a padded box and mailed it to the University of Latvia, where researchers specialize in studying peat.
After six months she got her results: there was antioxidant activity in her peat. Antioxidants, which combat skin damage caused by free radicals, are a common ingredient in anti-aging creams, either peat-based or those stacked in the aisles of a neighborhood pharmacy.
For Prunty, it was the evidence she'd been waiting for. But by the time the University of Latvia contacted her, she'd heard of Ógra's success and felt she'd missed her chance.
"Meanwhile," says Prunty, "everybody is rich in the peat marketplace."
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Last year, Ógra Skincare sent a batch of peat to Glasgow University to be dated. Researchers concluded that Kenny's bog is more than 9,000 years old. A test done in 2012 by the Shannon Applied Biotechnology Centre in western Ireland revealed what Kenny's swamp contains: ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent organic materials, including high levels of antioxidants, antibacterials and antiseptics.
Last year, the government agency Enterprise Ireland awarded Kenny and his team a grant to finance their skincare line. The company has started to expand beyond the shores of Ireland, recently partnering with a U.K. distributor and negotiating with a distributor in the U.S. Kenny believes that peat-based beauty products won't remain a niche market much longer. "This will be the biggest company in the world," he told me.
As much as Kenny's focused on the narrative of Ógra's swelling business and increasing customer base, every time I called he was quick to retell the story of his bog's first customer: "When I was a boy, I fell…" it starts.
When Kenny was seven years old he slipped while his mother, Bridget, was cooking in the kitchen. A cast-iron pot of boiling water broke his fall. Bridget heard him scream before she saw him pull his blistering hand from the boiling water. She put him on the back of her bicycle and pedaled the mile to the family's bog. Once there, Bridget dug her hand into the earth. She took her son's scorched limb, the skin so damaged it had begun to slough off, and covered it in peat.
As Kenny remembers it, the peat didn't tingle. The skin on his arm didn't flush. In three days' time there was no scar to document the accident.
Peat had done for young Kenny what the Peat Face and Body Mask, 1.7 ounces for $66, promises to do for those who apply it: erase a wound, renew a glow and undo a bit of time's sure decay — at least, as far as the body's concerned.
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Audrey McGlinchy is a Brooklyn-based writer stopping off in Austin, Texas for the summer. She's written poems, choreographed dances and produced radio stories, all of which (minus the dance numbers) you can find at a site her best friend's boyfriend made for $50.