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The People of the Bog

Two thousand years ago the residents of northwest Europe had the puzzling habit of killing certain men, women, and children and tossing the bodies into bogs. Today their mummies are casting light on the murky times in which they lived.

Aug 1, 1997 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:18 AM


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In 1835 Danish ditchdiggers found the body of a woman in a peat bog, pinned down under wooden stakes. Her watery burial place was known locally as Gundhilde’s bog, after a legendary eighth-century Viking queen. Gundhilde, according to the tale, was on her way to marry the Danish king Harald Bluetooth when she was waylaid and drowned. Historians concluded they had found Queen Gundhilde’s body. The reigning Danish king, Frederick VI, was so impressed with the story that he arranged to have her buried in a royal coffin in a church in nearby Vejle, the ancient royal seat.

Actually the queen was considerably older than thought, and probably somewhat less than royal. More than a hundred years after her discovery, during World War II, coal shortages made peat--which, after all, is simply very young coal--a valuable fuel source, and the people of northwestern Europe began tearing up their bogs. But as peat carvers cut huge blocks out of soggy, moss-covered coastal bogs, they frequently made the shocking discovery of bodies, obviously murdered, and so well preserved they looked as if they’d only recently died. In fact they were all around 2,000 years old. Suddenly, bog bodies like that of Queen Gundhilde and a scattering of others found over the previous few centuries were no longer isolated oddities. Prehistoric murder victims from approximately the same time period kept turning up in northwestern Europe, especially in Denmark and northern Germany. For some reason, from 2,500 to 2,000 years ago, the Germanic tribes of Iron Age northwestern Europe had a habit of killing people and leaving their bodies in bogs.

Even 50 years ago, archeologists knew practically nothing of the Iron Age in northwestern Europe, having only pottery fragments and other bits of evidence to work with. And they were unable to learn much from these bodies--modern techniques of dating, preservation, and analysis were still unknown. Of the 1,000 or so bodies or body parts that have been discovered in Iron Age peat, most weren’t cared for or properly examined at the time of discovery. Today most are just paper mummies, existing only in newspaper reports and historical records. But over the past ten years researchers have taken a new look at the bog mummies that remain. They are analyzing the bodies as if they are modern-day murder victims, using the forensic methods that are employed today to identify anonymous corpses. Although the wealth of information these Iron Age John and Jane Does are yielding hasn’t yet offered a clear-cut answer to why they were killed, archeologists are getting a better sense of who these people were and how they died.

It was natural for peat carvers encountering moist, fleshy corpses, with clothing, hair, and skin still intact, to assume that the deaths had been recent. In 1950, when Danish workers discovered the body of a small male figure wearing a cap, curled up on his side, they immediately notified the police. They thought they had recovered the body of a missing schoolboy from Copenhagen who had disappeared from a class trip a year earlier. In fact they had found what would later be dubbed Tollund Man, who hadn’t been missed by anyone for many, many centuries. Two years later peat carvers working a few miles away found Grauballe Man, whose body was laid out as if reclining on a couch, a giant slit across his neck. Locals were convinced that it was the corpse of Red Kristian, who had presumably met a bad end some 50 years earlier after never making it home from a night of carousing at the Svostrup Inn. They were off by about two millennia.

The exquisite preservation of these corpses comes courtesy of some peculiar bog chemistry. Bogs begin when moss dominates a low-lying patch of land, causing the soil to become waterlogged and acidic. Bacteria have a difficult time surviving in such conditions and thus can’t break down the dead moss and other vegetation, which instead simply pile up and become peat. But most bogs cannot pile their peat layers very far above the surrounding land, because the bog plants depend on minerals from groundwater to survive. If the bog rises too high, the plants can’t reach the nutrients they need. Along the coast, however, the vegetation can get minerals in the spray that comes off the ocean, and thus the bogs can grow into raised domes a few yards high. Cut off from groundwater, these bogs depend on rainfall, which they soak up like sponges. A corpse in such a place can stay moist for centuries, but it’s protected from bacteria by the harsh chemistry of the bog water. And the tannins produced by the moss turn a corpse’s skin to leather.

Not surprisingly, few people who uncovered these corpses in the past recognized their true significance, and it was only by chance that a museum would learn of a fresh discovery. Tollund Man was preserved because one of the police officers summoned to the scene happened to be a board member of a local museum. But even when a museum did get hold of a body, researchers had no established protocol for preserving prehistoric corpses and often did a poor job. (Perhaps the most misguided ministrations were suffered by Rendswühren Man, discovered in northern Germany in 1871--he was smoked like a ham at a local butcher’s shop.) In truth, there was little incentive to do better, since researchers lacked the means of getting information out of corpses and were thus more interested in any vessels, jewelry, and other artifacts that might be found alongside them. Many of the early bog bodies were reburied in churchyards or shunted off into storage, where they soon dried out. Not until after World War II did researchers begin to preserve the bodies more carefully. Generally they used beeswax, rubbing the mummies’ leathery skin with the stuff to give them the look of a highly polished shoe.

Beyond these bodies and their artifacts, researchers’ notions about the Germanic tribes in Iron Age Europe came from the excavations of a few small farming settlements. They could see that people lived in the same houses as their livestock and tended fields of flax and barley. The only human remains found were bits of charred bone, either in clay urns or on the site of an old funeral pyre, showing that the people normally cremated their dead. The one written account of them is from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a work called Germania in A.D. 98. The Roman Empire extended to just a few hundred miles south of the Danish border, and Tacitus painted his new neighbors as a culture characterized by brutal customs that he thought would benefit from the civilizing influence of Roman rule. The murdered bodies that emerged from bogs millennia later seemed to confirm Tacitus’ judgment. The majority of the bog people had not died of natural causes. Most had been hung--the ropes were still around their necks--hit over the head, or stabbed. Some, like Grauballe Man, suffered particularly cruel treatment, with broken bones, slit throats, and crushed skulls. A number of the women had had one side of their heads shaved, a sign of disgrace at least since medieval times, suggesting to some that they were being punished for infidelity.

These people, archeologists proposed, had clearly committed some terrible offense and this savage execution was their sentence. Tacitus seemed to support that view: The coward, the unwarlike, the man stained with abominable vices, is plunged into the mire or the morass, he wrote. Yet some bodies, like that of Tollund Man, were treated more gently by their handlers, who even dug them graves in the bogs rather than simply tossing them in. Some researchers claimed that Tollund Man’s noble visage suggested he could not have been a criminal. Rather, he represented a chosen sacrifice to a bog deity. One Danish archeologist proposed that the bog bodies were sacrificed to an earth goddess called Nerthus. This theory too was based on the writings of Tacitus, who described a rite in which slaves were made to pull a wagon carrying Nerthus’ image through the fields. Afterwards the car, the vestments, and the divinity herself are purified in a secret lake, he wrote. Slaves perform the rite, who are instantly swallowed up by its waters.

After some initial interest in the bog people in the post-war years, the study of them quickly waned. By then almost all the raised peat bogs in northwestern Europe were destroyed, and no new bodies were being discovered. The few bogs that remained, in England and Ireland, were harvested by machines, which would leave a corpse entirely unnoticed. But in 1984, at Lindow Moss near Manchester, peat workers happened to spot a human foot on their machine’s conveyer belt. Researchers eventually found the rest of the body, still encased in uncut peat. Fifty specialists were called in to examine Lindow Man. They dated him, X-rayed him, probed his guts, found his blood type, checked his teeth, and reconstructed his face.

Lindow Man, they discovered, was in his twenties when he died about 2,000 years ago. He suffered from mild arthritis in his lower back, had excellent teeth, and had type O blood, like most of the modern English population. His intestines were riddled with the eggs of parasitic worms, and his last meal was unleavened bread. He was strangled with a cord of sinew, which left clear marks around his neck. He had also been struck several times over the head, and one of his ribs had been cracked by a blow from behind.

The wealth of knowledge extracted from Lindow Man inspired some researchers to look afresh at previously discovered bog mummies. When I became keeper of archeology, nothing was known of bog bodies, says Wijnand van der Sanden, who in the mid-1980s was head of the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands, but suddenly a lot of visitors wanted to know everything about them. Archeologist Christian Fischer, director of Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, also took up the cause. Ten or 15 years ago, he says, there were only a few bog bodies seen in museums. I wondered what had happened to the others. For the past ten years, Fischer, Van der Sanden, and others have been researching museum records, journals, and newspaper reports in an attempt to track down forgotten bog mummies stored in museums. Those they find they subject to the same sort of analysis that Lindow Man underwent. What we are doing today is seeing what was really found 40 or 50 years ago, Fischer says.

Forty or 50 years ago, researchers could date bog bodies only by analyzing the pollen grains in surrounding sediment and were thus saddled by margins of error centuries wide. Now, with new carbon-dating techniques, they can get much tighter fixes on the ages of the bodies by sampling only a few grams of tissue or hair. Fischer has redated three Danish bog bodies: Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, and Elling Woman, all of whom were found within a few miles of one another. He tracked down Elling Woman’s forgotten remains to a storage room in the National Museum in Copenhagen. She had been discovered in 1938, at the same spot where Tollund Man was found 12 years later, but had never been studied.

Elling Woman and Grauballe Man are not only close in location, Fischer discovered, but in age as well. When Grauballe Man was first carbon-dated, in 1952, researchers thought him to be 1,500 years old. But Fischer’s redating shows he was closer to 2,100 years old, as was Elling Woman--the two died within, at most, 40 years of each other. Given their proximity in both time and space, they may, Fischer suggests, even have known each other. Carbon dating also shows that both died at a time when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rapidly fluctuating, suggesting the possibility that they lived during a stressful time of changing climate. Fischer plans to investigate the possibility that their deaths could be linked to the weather. Maybe if something was going wrong, the people could have felt pressed to give a sacrifice to the gods, he says. And that sacrifice could be gold, silver, or even a human being.

Sacrifice--not execution--is the explanation that both Fischer and Van der Sanden prefer for most of the people entombed in the bogs of northwestern Europe. Many of them were killed in a decent way, if that’s possible, Fischer points out. Their eyes were closed after death, and their bodies were gently arranged in graves. And bogs were clearly sacred places for Iron Age folk, acting as gateways to the supernatural world, where gifts could be presented to the gods. In other parts of Europe, weapons, swords, spears, silver vessels, and gold jewelry have been found in bogs--presumably they served as votive offerings. But both researchers admittedly are puzzled by bodies that show signs of obvious abuse, such as Huldremose Woman, found in 1879 and reexamined more than 100 years later. She bore deep cuts on her arms and legs, suggesting that she had been hacked repeatedly. When she was first excavated, in fact, her right arm was detached from the rest of her body. Researchers who have studied the fracture marks on her bones now think her arm was chopped off before she died. The overkill tells me that they were really disliked by the community, says Fischer, but it is impossible for me to tell why.

Perhaps these abused people were indeed criminals, as some have suggested, but were sacrificed rather than executed. Maybe there was an unspoken practicality to the community’s rituals: people who were considered to be of little use were taken to the bogs--including criminals and those who could procure little food. The new studies certainly do suggest that many of the victims were in poor health, although it’s impossible to know how they compared with their fellow tribesmen. Almost all had intestinal worms, and many sustained broken bones for years before their death. Van der Sanden has identified a rare bone disease in a woman from the Netherlands. Her arms and legs were severely stunted, signs of a disorder called dyschondrosteosis. It’s a very rare pathology, not seen these days, he says.

Bog people also suffered from more common problems, like osteoporosis, arthritis, extra digits, scoliosis, rheumatism, and arrested growth. People stop growing as a result of malnutrition, and judging from the contents of the mummies’ intestines, their diet was anything but hearty. Researchers have probed their guts and discovered particles of grain, seeds, and weeds. Most of the victims consumed a meager last meal of thin gruel, made from barley, flax, and other weeds, apparently washed down with a few gulps of bog water--most have peat moss in their guts as well. Only a few had traces of animal bone or fruits in their systems.

The food in their guts can even tell researchers in which season the people died. For the soft tissues of a body to be preserved, it must have been placed in the bog during the winter or early spring, when the water would have been too cold for internal bacteria to rot away a body from the inside. During these cold months, fresh fruit would have been scarce, and people would have been living off their stored grain. At least one woman, however, was probably buried in the late summer. Her guts contained a large number of blackberry seeds, blackberry season being in the late summer and early fall. And because she was buried at that time, only her skin, bones, and a portion of her intestines were preserved.

The gut of Grauballe Man, meanwhile, suggests that he met a particularly horrible end. It contains fungal spores that cause ergot in cereal, which if eaten triggers a gruesome condition sometimes called Saint Anthony’s fire. The victim suffers convulsions and hallucinations and feels as if his hands, mouth, and feet are on fire. Perhaps Grauballe Man ate this toxic fungus accidentally; alternatively, it may have been part of a ritual of sacrifice.

This scientific second look at the bog people is far from over. As researchers analyze more bodies, patterns of ritual practices and other dimensions of Iron Age life may become clearer. Researchers are curious to know, for example, if any of the bog people were related, but they have been unable to extract any DNA from the bodies. We have tried and tried, says Fischer, but acidic bog water seems to have altered most of the genetic material. Fischer still hopes he can find some DNA buried in the center of a tooth.

While Fischer and his colleagues have many questions to answer, every detail they uncover makes the bog people seem somehow more familiar. No longer are they little-known, poorly understood barbarians from the pages of ancient Roman history. We can now picture the last minutes of these individuals’ lives. We know what they ate, how they did their hair, and what they wore. We may know how they worshiped. In some cases, the new, more human face of the bog people is quite literal: several museums have reconstructed the facial features of bog mummies with ct scans and wax models. Now these mysterious people can return the stare of museum visitors. This has shocked a lot of people who thought they were savages, says Fischer. They were in fact very much like us.

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