Bog bodies

Bog bodies, or Bog People are human remains of individuals found within boggy environments.  Due to the environmental conditions, their hair, skin, internal organs, nails and clothing are often preserved perfectly (abeit in a rather fetching shade of brown/copper), but not their bones.  Bones don’t do so well in acid conditions, as it dissolves the calcium phosphate.  Once you get past that rather squishy fact, this category of individuals, predominantly from the Iron Age across Europe, are rather fascinating.

[WARNING: Some of the less-squishy squishy photos follow – some external sites linked to have the more squishy ones, so don’t click if you’re of a squishy-intolerant disposition.]

Here’s one of the most famous ones: the Tollund Man.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man

Take a good look: there are eyelids, wrinkles, day-old stubble and a cloth hat perfectly preserved. Not bad for a chap who died in the 4th C BC.  He was so well-preserved, that when he was first discovered in 1950 in a peat bog on the Jutland peninsula, Denmark, he was initially thought to be a recent murder victim.  They even managed to take a look at his last meal – porridge made from barley, linseed, camomile and knotweed.  He was around 40 years old and had died from hanging.  There is still the noose round his neck made from plaited animal hide, it left furrows in his skin beneath his chin and at the sides of his neck.

Many of the bodies show signs of what is known as ritual killing – elements which show a deliberate death, such as evidence of death by hanging or strangulation – as opposed to death from old age, or from conflict.  The leading expert in this field, the wonderfully named Peter Glob has put forward a theory that these individuals were deliberately sacrificed in this ritual manner as offerings to the Gods.  This theory is widely supported, but a second theory of the execution and disposing of criminals has also  been put forward.

Some bodies show signs of torture, such as the Old Croghan Man (of which only the mutilated torso has been found), or multiple injury such as Lindow Man’s head injuries, cut throat and throttling with animal sinew rope, whilst others had incisions through which their entrails were pulled, such as one of the Weerdinge Men.  Most of the bodies analysed show that the victims were of relatively high status – their fingers were manicured, they showed none of the signs of repeated physical labour (such as farming or hunting), and tests on hair showed a good balanced diet. The usual markers of high status burial for this period, – jewellery, high-quality clothes and grave goods are all not present, save for a few beads and a bracelet in one case.  In fact, for most, the bodies are discovered naked save for an occasional cloak.  Notably many of the bog bodies have headgear and a good proportion had sticks or twigs placed over them afterwards, or a forked stick driven into the peat.  This according to Glob ‘probably indicates the wish to pin the dead firmly into the bog

Some only survive as a head – having presumably been decapitated.  The Osterby Man is the most spectacular example of this: (this isn’t his original skull, the preservation techniques when he was found weren’t brilliant, the head decomposed beyond conservation, so now all that survives is his hair)

Osterby Man

Osterby Man

His hair is now ginger due to the chemicals present in the bog, but the style of hair, most notably the knot clearly visible on the left, is known as a Swabian Knot. The Roman historian Tacitus, who lived in Osterby Man’s era, describes the hairstyle as typical of the Suebi tribe of Germany.

The third body I want to draw your attention to on this short tour is that of Grauballe Man.  He was also discovered in the 1950’s and was killed at around 30 years old by having his throat cut from ear to ear.  Before his throat was cut, Grauballe Man ate a meat and grain soup laced with a hallucinogenic fungus perhaps intended to induce a trance-like state in a ritual that included his sacrifice.

Grauballe Man

Grauballe Man

You can find a poem about him by Seamus Heaney here

It’s not just male bog bodies, there are a number of women and children too. The Yde Girl was discovered in 1897, dating to 100BC-AD50, she was 16 when she was stabbed in the neck and strangled by a woolen belt made in the sprang technique which had been wrapped round her neck.  She had scolisis or curvature of the spine,(making her 4’5″ tall), and placed most of her weight on her left foot, which probably caused a limping gait.  Although her skull had been subsequently squashed by the weight of the bog, her face has been reconstructed:

Yde Girl

Yde Girl

The bodies found at Windeby are also worth a mention.  Originally identified as Windeby Girl due to the slight build of the remains, blindfolded before drowning and being held down by branches and a large stone she was theorised as being an adulterer due to the presence of a man’s body nearby.  Windeby Girl was re-examined and re-labelled the slightly more unromantic Windeby I, as it was found to be the remains of a teenage boy with shoulder length hair.  Instead of being an adulterer, the boy was analysed and found to have been very sick during his lifetime, perhaps dying of natural causes, the blindfold is now thought to have been a tie for his hair which slipped down during the sacrificial process.

So, bog bodies can be explained as individuals who in the main suffered deliberate deaths at the hands of at least one other.  We know that these were high status individuals, showing signs of personal care and grooming before death.  We know that the deaths were planned – Grauballe Man ceased shaving several days beforehand.  Often violent and ritualistic, including strangulation and stabbing of both young and old, male and female, bog bodies are a specific category of individuals who predominantly lived and died in the Iron Age across Europe.  The society was one very different from ours in which sacrifice to the Gods was common practice.  If we’re really lucky, there will be more finds in future which will allow us to discover more about the people, their beliefs and our own history.

You can read more about bog bodies in  National Geographic, and a BBC article noting the discovery of two bodies near Clonycavan, Ireland.  The definitive work, if a little old now is by PV Glob, Bog Bodies from 1973, which I think is a reprint of The Bog People, published in 1971. Theres also Dying for the Gods – which explores the context of the bog bodies in practices of human sacrifice

There is also a good general (if academic) book on the archaeology of death by Professor Parker-Pearson HERE


2 thoughts on “Bog bodies

  1. A fascinating insight into our ancestors – thanks.

    Having performed my morning ablusions earlier today with my usual soap dish, badger brush and razor-sharp sliver of precision-made Wilkinson Sword finest steel, it always amazes me how people were able to shave so well in those days. And, indeed, even bothered to given the poor tools and pain involved. Just how did they do it?!

  2. Um…. pass…. flint micro blades maybe? (I’m sure I read a journal article somewhere testing obsidian blades and finding them just as effective as scalpels?) Perhaps a really really sharp small knife, and, I don’t know, Ye Sensitive Skin Gilette Sheep Fat Gel for todays discerning Bog Body? There’s plenty of evidence for Roman razors, so the technology in that time period isn’t inconceivable. Just don’t ask me how they managed the manicure part, I’ve no idea, you’d need something with concentrated pressure applied on both sides of the nail… ooh, actually minature shears might do it, not sure when they’re around from though…
    – Amalasuntha

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