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Mystery of the Bog Bodies

Bog bodies are often found in the peat bogs of Northern Europe, from Ireland and the United Kingdom to the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany over the past 300 years. The first recorded specimen was uncovered in 1791 in the Netherlands, and hundreds more have been discovered since then as peat in the ancient sphagnum bogs has been mined over the years. As diggers work their way through a level of peat, a shovel will hit something that feels different, or perhaps a hand will come tumbling out of the ragged mass of plant material. Further investigation in the surrounding peat can bring a whole body into view. Most of the corpses are those of ancient Europeans—Celts and Germanic tribesmen who lived in the northern forests while the Romans lived in the lands to the south. The majority of these bog mummies or bog bodies date to between the first century B.c. and the fourth century A.D., though the oldest dates from the Mesolithic period (about 10,000 years ago). They are commonly given names related to the locale where they are discovered.

There are also some medieval and modern examples. The astonishing preservative powers of the bogs have prevented the decay of these ancient remains so effectively that, although the skeleton does not usually survive, we have the skin, internal organs, stomach (sometimes including the remains of the last meal), eyes, brains, and hair. Bog waters are suffused with tannins (organic acids) and even aldehydes, which act to kill microorganisms, inhibit bacterial decomposition, and promote the preservation of soft tissues. So rich are bog waters in dissolved tannins from the plants within the bog that the waters are often stained brown by the tannin. This same brown appears in the skins of bog bodies. The ambient chemicals in a bog can act much like the tannin derived from bark that leather workers use to tan hides. The bog bodies are essentially tanned into leather by their immersion, which accounts for their leathery appearance as modern specimens. But how and why did these people meet their death in remote bogs thousands of years ago? One thing we do know is that a large amount of the bodies recovered show signs of extreme violence, including signs of torture and murder.

More than 80 bodies have been recovered from the bogs of Ireland in the past two centuries, seven of which have been radiocarbon dated. Unlike the rest of Northern Europe, the majority of these bodies belong to the late medieval or post-medieval period, though there are some from the Iron Age.

The earliest recorded find of a bog bodies in Europe is the Kibbelgaarn body in the Netherlands, unearthed in 1791. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were hundreds of discoveries made in Holland. Gallagh Man is one Iron Age example, radiocarbon dated to between 470 and 120 B.C., found by the O'Kelly family in 1821 at Gallagh, near Castleblakeney, County Galway. Gallagh Man was naked but a deerskin cloak tied at the throat with a band of willow rods, which may have been used as a strangling device. As with many other bog bodies that suffered violence, his hair had been cropped short. He may have been a criminal and suffered public execution, as the body had been staked to the ground with pointed wooden sticks, possibly to prevent his soul from escaping, a practice known from some Danish bog bodies.

In 1879 Huldremose Woman, found in a bog near Ramten, Jutland, Denmark, was discovered with two skin capes, a woollen skirt, a scarf, and a hair band. Examination of the body revealed the gruesome details that her arms and legs had been repeatedly hacked, one arm being cut completely off, before she was deposited in the peat. The woman met this brutal death sometime between 160 B.c. and A.D. 340.

Perhaps the most famous of these bog bodies is Tollund Man, found in May 1950, near the village of Tollund in Denmark, by two brothers cutting peat. When the men first glimpsed the face staring up at them, they thought it was a recent murder victim and immediately contacted the local police. But subsequent radiocarbon dating of Tollund Man's hair showed that he had died around 350 B.c. During the operation to remove the body from his resting place, one of the helpers collapsed and died of a heart attack. Perhaps, as the late Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob suggested, this was a case of the bog claiming a life for a life. Tollund Man's body had been arranged in a fetal position at the time of death, and was naked apart from a pointed skin cap and a hide belt. His hair had been cropped extremely short and there was stubble clearly visible on his chin and upper lip. A rope consisting of two leather thongs twisted together was pulled tightly around his neck, and it is believed that he was probably hanged or garroted using this rope.

Tollund Man

Tests on the contents of his stomach reveal that Tollund Man's last meal had been a kind of vegetable and seed soup. An interesting fact about the soup is that its ingredients were a mixture of various kinds of wild and cultivated seeds, which included such an unusual quantity of knotweed that it must have been gathered especially for the purpose. One possibility is that the knotweed was an important ingredient in a ritual last meal that was somehow part of a sacred execution rite. This possibility is also suggested by the careful arrangement of the body and the fact that his eyes and mouth had been closed.

In 1952, near Windeby in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, two bodies were found in a small bog. The first turned out to be male who had been strangled and then placed in the bog, the body held down by sharpened branches stuck firmly into the peat around him. The second body was that of a young girl of about 14 years of age, dating to the first century A.D. The girl had been blindfolded with a strip of cloth before being drowned in the bog, her body secured by a large stone and branches from a birch tree.

In 1978, the body of a girl aged between 25 and 30 was discovered in Meenybradden Bog, near Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland. The girl, with short cropped hair and eyelashes and eyelids still intact, had been wrapped in a woollen cloak and carefully placed in the grave. There was no evidence of violence on the body, which was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1570. The cause of death, and why she was buried in the bog, is still a mystery.

Around 1980s, Lindow Man was unearthed. The body is naked but with an arm band made of fox fur and a thin rope around his neck. Lindow Man had been in his 20s when he died between A.D. 50 and A.D. 100. Examination of the body revealed that he had been hit twice on the crown of his head, probably with an axe, with sufficient force to detach chips of his skull into his brain. He had also been strangled using the leather garrote still remaining around his neck, and there was a gash on the throat, which may indicate that his throat had been cut. His hair had been trimmed (using scissors) two or three days before he met his death. The contents of his stomach included burned bread and traces of pollen from mistletoe, a plant sacred to the Celts. Celtic scholar and archaeologist Dr. Anne Ross believes that the threefold death suffered by Lindow Man, along with the blackened crust in his stomach, and the traces of mistletoe, suggest that the man was the victim of a Druidic sacrifice.

Two Irish bog bodies were found in 2003. The first was discovered in Clonycavan, County Meath, north of Dublin called the Clonycavan Man and the second in Croghan, County Offaly, just 25 miles away. Old Croghan Man, as he has become known, was in his mid-20s, a giant at around 6-feet 6-inches tall. He has been dated between 362 B.C. and 175 B.C.

Clonycavan Man, a young male around 5-feet 2-inches tall, dates from between 392 B.c. and 201 B.C. In common with other bog bodies, they appear to have been brutally tortured before their deaths, probably as ritual sacrifices. While Old Croghan Man's nipples had been cut and he had been stabbed in the ribs. A cut on his arm indicates that he had tried to defend himself during the attack. There were also holes in both his upper arms, where a hazel rope withy had been passed through to bind him. He was later decapitated and dismembered before being buried in the bog. In contrast to his violent end, Croghan Man's body revealed that he had well-manicured nails and relatively smooth hands, which indicate somebody who had probably never performed any manual work; perhaps he was a priest or a member of the aristocracy. Clonycavan Man suffered a massive wound to the head, caused by a heavy axe that shattered his skull, and also several other injuries on his body. One particularly distinctive feature was his unusual raised hairstyle, for which he had used a kind of Iron Age hair gel, actually a form of resin that had probably come from south-western France or Spain.

A more recent find from northern Germany, from Uchte, Lower Saxony, was at first thought to be the body of a teenage murder victim. But when scientists reexamined the body in January of 2005 it was identified as a young girl aged between 16 and 20, who had been deposited in the bog in about 650 B.C. She subsequently became known as the Girl of the Uchter Moor. Even her hair had been preserved, though archaeologists weren't sure whether it was originally blonde or black, as the peat turns all hair reddish.

Ned Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, has developed a theory to explain why 40 bodies discovered in Irish bogland were made along tribal, political, and royal boundaries. His belief is that the burials are offerings to fertility gods by kings to guarantee a successful reign. This is certainly a possible explanation for many of the Irish bog bodies, but what of the rest of Northern Europe? The variety of different ways in which many of these people were killed would suggest something more than murder, probably some kind of ritual sacrifice.

The ancient Roman historian Tacitus wrote Germania, a contemporary account of the German tribes in the first century A.D., in which he described the Germans' capital punishment of criminals and outcasts by staking them in the bogs. He mentions some interesting customs connected with crime and punishment in their culture, including how "cowards, shirkers, and those guilty of unnatural vices" were forced down into the bog under a wicker hurdle. He also states that adulterous wives were stripped naked, had their heads shaved, and were turned out of the house and flogged through the village. There are certainly indications from Tacitus that suggest that many of the victims in the bogs had broken some law or taboo of the society for which they were executed. It is obvious that there can never be one single explanation for the gruesome but compelling mystery of the bog bodies, considering the vast array of possible theories.

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