Wednesday, September 6, 2017

‘Marrow mash’: the possible medicinal use of cattle bone marrow in Early Historic Ireland

Celtic Caludron by lemonade8 on Used with kind permission
I’m never quite sure how universal my experience of academic life really is (or was). For me, at least, I finished a Master’s degree in archaeology with lots of good intentions to get down to business and convert individual chapters into publishable papers. I didn’t do too badly – I got a few decent publications of core ideas out to the wider world. On the other hand – and this is where I’ve no idea whether I’m alone or part of a larger group – there were a few ideas that I had wanted to write up, but never got around to it. Perhaps the world doesn’t need to know my theory that the modern road system in west Clare dates to the Early Christian period*.

As some readers may be aware, my computer recently suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure. Although no data was lost, I’ve had to spend time going through various files and considering if I really need certain stuff on my new machine, or if it can’t be safely consigned to the archives. Seriously, if you’ve got a folder called ‘In Progress’ that hasn’t been touched in half a decade, it’s time to reconsider your priorities.

In going through this process, I found an outline draft of an article that I had almost completely forgotten about. It falls in this category of ‘peripheral ideas I had when writing my Masters’ and the sad reality is that I’m never going to get around to finishing it. The reasons for this are simple – for my Master’s I read a lot of the surviving corpus of Early Irish Law and other literature (albeit in translation). In the two decades since, I’ve not really maintained my interest and what little I knew then, I’ve largely forgotten. The other reality is that to pursue the research fully, I would require proficiency in such areas as biology and chemistry that I have never possessed and am unlikely to develop any time soon.

So, rather than allow it to go to digital decomposition, sitting in splendid isolation on my hard drive, I’ve decided to share what I have in the hope that someone with more energy and ability might find it a topic worthy of further thought and research.

My idea is pretty simple – when we find split cattle bones on archaeological sites (e.g. Ballinderry Crannog no. 1 (Hencken 1937)), the general consensus is that they were broken to extract the marrow (smir) for human consumption. I don’t disagree with this (bone marrow is a good source of nutrition), but I wonder if this was the totality of the marrow usage. Perhaps bone marrow could have been used for its medicinal qualities too.

Where bones are recovered from archaeological sites, it may be surmised that they were deliberately broken open to extract the marrow. As Roche & Stelfox (1937, 231) note of the Ballinderry material: ‘The characteristic appearance of these broken bones is always the same. The centre portion of the shaft of the bone is always shattered but the ends of the bones are perfect, unless split by a subsequent operation’. While the extraction of marrow can be identified, the uses to which it was put cannot be so easily recognised. Therefore, we must turn to the rather wonderful, if somewhat disparate, collection of early Irish literature in the hope of getting some insight into what bone marrow could have been used for.

Although there are no known references to the consumption of bone marrow in the surviving corpus of early law, marrow is included among the list of food items in the 12th century satire Aislinge Meic Con Glinne:

‘Then in the harbour of the lake before me I saw a juicy little coracle of beef-fat, with its coating of tallow, with its thwarts of curds, with its prow of lard, with its stern of butter, with its thole-pins of marrow, with its oars of flitches of old boar in it.’ (Meyer 1892, 85.12; Jackson 1990, 33.1022)

Despite the comic vision context of the tale the underlying implication is that marrow was among the common foodstuffs of the period. (Pers. Comm. Fergus Kelly). In fact, this is the only surviving reference in the early literature to bone marrow being used as  a food.

There is, effectively, only one other reference to bone marrow in the early literature, and it's from the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The version of this text from the Book of Leinster has been translated thus:

‘So then Fíngin Fáithlíaig asked Cú Chulainn for a marrow-mash to cure and heal Cethern mac Fintain. Cú Chulainn proceeded to the encampment of the men of Ireland and brought from there all he found of their herds and flocks and droves, and made from them a mash, flesh and bones and hides all together. And Cethern was placed in the marrow-mash for the space of three days and three nights, and he began to soak up the marrow-mash which was about him. And the marrow entered into his wounds and gashes, his sores and many stabs.’ (O’Rahilly 1967, 105.3780-5)

Such a passage seems so filled with literary over-statement and exaggeration as to be of little value to the student of early historic society. However, the Recension I version of this passage is much less prosaic and appears to encapsulate the central premise that bovine marrow, when applied as a poultice had the ability to heal wounds:

‘Then Cú Chulainn asked for marrow for the physician to cure Cethern. He made a marrow-mash from the bones of the cattle he encountered. Hence the name Smirommair in Crích Rois.’ (O’Rahilly 1976, 100.3299-3300)

While such legendary tales and the feats of heroic warriors are undoubtedly fantastic, the question remains: are these the result of pure literary imagination, or do they possess within them a central kernel of veracity? Kelly (1997, 53) notes this use of marrow mash (smirchomairt or smirammair) in the Táin, but states his uncertainty as to whether this was merely a literary invention or evidence for a genuine medical treatment.

The Dying Gaul (By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5)

My point is that if we’re willing to accept the literary evidence for eating bone marrow from a single 12th century satire, then we should at least give some consideration to its use in early medicine based on its appearance in the Táin. Admittedly, the idea of eating bone marrow has the advantage of being well documented in many cultures up to the present day. According to the website, cattle bone marrow contains 126 calories and 7g of fat per 0.5oz (1 tablespoon) serving. The same source indicates that a 3oz serving of lean beef contains 180 calories and 9g of fat. To recalibrate this to make it clearer – a 0.5oz serving of lean beef would have 90 calories and 1.5g of fat, versus the 126 calories and 7g of fat offered by the same sized serving of marrow. We can be clear that bone marrow is a rich source of energy and would have been highly prized in the prehistoric and early historic periods.

To effectively make the case that bone marrow could also have been used for healing and medication, we certainly need more evidence – and that’s where I’ve rather run aground. Failing the sudden appearance of a newly discovered early Irish manuscript that clearly states: ‘we used bone marrow for medicine, no, really!’ we, to my mind, need two strands of evidence. The first of these would be to document the medicinal use of bone marrow in other cultures. Outside of Ireland, I’ve been able to find reference to the use of bone marrow to treat coughing (seryt) by the ancient Egyptians (Numm 1996, 161). It’s fine, but it would be better to have more of this type of evidence. While being able to point to other times and cultures to say: ‘these all used bone marrow in a medicinal context’ would be lovely, it would not of itself be evidence that this was the case in early medieval Ireland.

What would be better – though still not conclusive – would be to have evidence of the healing properties of bone marrow. And this is where I've really run aground … I just have no idea as to how one would go about such a course of research. Even leaving aside the question of whether there would have been differences in the bone marrow of different breeds of cattle, I’m not entirely sure what we should look for or how we could go about it. Could there be antiseptic qualities in bone marrow? Perhaps it could aid in coagulation or in some other way that would speed up the healing process. In researching around this topic (read: Googling aimlessly) I’ve seen many websites that claim bone marrow as a rich source of collagen, but I have been unable to find any quantifiable data on this. The role of collagen in wound healing process appears to be well understood [here & here] and collagen wound dressings are popular. Could the collagen-rich bone marrow have been effective in speeding up healing? Could this seemingly exaggerated reference in our heroic literature actually preserve some knowledge of ancient medical practices? Perhaps there are further components of bone marrow that could aid healing, of which I am unaware.

I suppose that this is my point here – if this draft sits on my computer, unlooked at and unresearched, I’ll always remain unaware. It will languish there lost and forlorn and none of us will be any the wiser. That’s why I’ve taken the decision to turn what I have loose and set if free, in the hope of attracting the attention of someone with better science knowledge and an interest in pursuing the topic in ways I am just not able. Even after nearly 20 years, I maintain that this is an interesting question that deserves to be investigated further. Anyone willing to have a go?

Works cited

Hencken, H. O’N. 1937 ‘Ballinderry crannog No. 1.’ PRIA c 43, 103 - 240.

Jackson, K. H. 1990 Aislinge Meic Con Glinne. School of Celtic studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Kelly, F. 1997 Early Irish farming: a study based mainly on the law texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. School of Celtic studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Meyer, K. (ed.) 1892 Aislinge Meic Conglinne: the vision of MacConglinne. D. Nutt, London.

Nunn, J. F. 1996 Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London.

O’Rahilly, C. (ed.) 1967 Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

O’Rahilly, C. (ed.) 1976 Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension I. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Roche, G. & Stelfox, A. W. 1937 ‘Appendix II: the animal bones from Ballinderry crannog No. I’ in Hencken, H. O’N. ‘Ballinderry crannog No. 1.’ PRIA c 43, 103 - 240.


* It totally does! I don’t have any excavated evidence or actual dates, but if you draw lines between the high-status ringforts (and go around the boggy area known as “the place of wolves”), you pretty much have today’s road network. See Chapter 7 [here].