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.1First, 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….

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