Around 20-10,000 years ago, peat bogs including dead plant residue began to form in parts of North-West Europe. Due to the humic acid they contain, these bogs were well suited for the preservation of organic materials. With the growing use of peat as fuel, the excavation of peat bogs increased to meet the demand. These excavations accidentally led to the exceptional discovery of almost unspoiled human remains from the Iron Age. People who found them thought that it was the devil incarnate, unsolved murders or men who had vanished without a trace, since they could not imagine many centuries separated their lives and that of the dead person in the bog (Glob, 1969, p. 63). This article discusses the discoveries of some of the remarkable bog bodies to explain their connection to ancient religious rituals.
Haraldskaer Woman was the first bog body that attracted the attention for examinations. She was found in Denmark in 1835. Although her date of death was around 500 BC, her skin and internal organs were so well-preserved that she was initially thought to have died recently. The woman was found naked with her ancient clothes folded on top of her. She had a wound on her knee, yet there was no sign to indicate the cause of death. Later examinations showed that the woman had been pinned down into the bog alive and died violently (Glob, 1969, p. 77). In 1858 and 1879, two more bog bodies in similar conditions were found in Denmark: the Nederfredericksmose Body and the Huldremose Woman.
The next discovery came in 1897 from The Netherlands. Dutch laborers found Yde Girl, a 2000 years old mummy. According to examinations, she was slowly strangled by a braided rope at the age of 16. During the 1900s, more bog bodies were found, mostly in Germany. Especially, the discovery of Osterby Man in 1948 made a great contribution to studies by offering a key to many of the riddles set by the bog people (Glob, 1969, p. 118). After being struck in the left temple and rendered dead, he was decapitated. However, the remarkable thing about him was his hair. It was unspoiled, tied in a Suebian knot, which was a hairstyle indicating high status. This was an important factor that will provide support for later theories.
The discoveries increased with the growing industrial use of coal, yet there was no proper examination since nobody understood what could these bog bodies tell about the history of humankind until the finding of Tollund Man in 1950 in Denmark. Upon hearing of the discovery, Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob started the first scientific studies. Except with a cap and belt, Tollund Man was naked. He had neatly trimmed hair and a clean shave, with well-groomed, soft, manicured hands. By investigating his well-preserved gut content, researchers revealed that his last meal was 12–24 hours before death, consisting of barley, flax and seeds of the wild plants gold-of-pleasure (camelina sativa) and pale persicaria (Nielsen et al., 2021, p. 1197). These ingredients indicate that he was most probably drugged. Similar to Yde Girl, Tollund Man was also slowly strangled using a braided rope, which was found on his neck. Even so, the expression on his face was surprisingly calm and peaceful, as it is shown in Image 3.
The contrast between his serene slumber and the brutality of his death, the vividness of his pores and a beard, the beauty of his high cheekbones and his manicured hands were fascinating (Gere, 2010, p. 518). With the discovery of other bog bodies, Glob recognized their common features and similarities. When Windeby I was found in 1952 in Germany, he was naked apart from a hairband. Another bog body from Denmark, Grauballe Man was naked with his throat slit. The last meal he ate was cereal porridge with some meat. In addition, similar to Tollund Man, he had well-groomed manicured hands, a proper haircut, and a clean shave. In 1959, Dätgen Man was found with a Suebian knot on his hair, another high-status person from Germany. Eventually, there were around 100 bog bodies from the Iron Age period across North-West Europe, including many high-status people. Almost all of them were naked, beaten and brutally treated. Also, their last meals were almost similar to each other. Upon analysing various bog bodies and the historical context, P.V. Glob concluded that these bog bodies were ritually sacrificed and murdered as offerings for a fertility goddess (Glob, 1969, p. 163). While the last meal of the bodies consisting of grain and seeds was according to the belief of the goddess to bring abundance, the rope that caused their death represented the mark of honour of the goddess, and a sign of consecration to her (Glob, 1969, p. 163). In addition, the majority of them being well-groomed high-status people who were not used to manual work was probably indicating that they were worthy of the goddess. These factors might even explain the peaceful expression on Tollund Man's face.
The evidence that supports Glob’s theory came with the increasing usage of peat cutting machines during the 1970s. At Lindow Moss, British workers accidentally found what is later called Lindow Skull. Initially, the police thought that this belonged to a missing woman, Malika de Fernandez. When police talked to her husband, he admitted killing her and then burying her in Lindow Moss. However, according to the radiocarbon dating done by Oxford University Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, the skull was there since A.D. 200, more than 1800 years (Purdy, 2018, p. 219). Although Malika de Fernandez remained missing, the conviction of her husband was not affected by the lack of her remains. Upon finding Lindow Skull, archaeologists realized that there may be more bog bodies, and perhaps even Malika de Fernandez. After four years in 1984, some human remains were discovered near the area where Lindow Skull was found. Examinations showed that these remains belonged to a male.
The body named Pete Marsh, was naked, lying face down and had manicured hands, similar to the other bog bodies found before. Researchers recreated how he might have looked like when he was alive. He was 170 meters tall, weighed 60-65 kilograms, had short hair, a mustache and a beard in addition to well-groomed hands. His last meal was consisting of simple grains mixed with some kind of hallucinogenic. Examinations showed that Pete Marsh had been struck three times with an axe before he died and slowly strangled by a garotte when he was 25 years old. The most recent discoveries came from Ireland: Conyclaven Man (2003) and Cul na Móna (2011). Both bodies had fatal wounds. These findings prove the correctness of Glob's theory of human sacrifice.
Besides their means of murder, bog bodies brought significant information about the people they were and the societies from which they originated. Archaeologists obtained ample information to examine since the bogs were suitable to preserve many materials. It is now possible to have an insight into the Iron Age culture, including trade routes, clothing style and religious rituals. In addition, bog bodies drew the attention of artists as well, leading them to question mortality from a different perspective.
Gere, C. (2010). Afterlives of an accidental masterpiece. Metascience, 19(3), 517–520. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11016-010-9429-9
Glob, P. V. (1969). The bog people : Iron age man preserved . Faber.
Nielsen, N. H., Henriksen, P. S., Mortensen, M. F., Enevold, R., Mortensen, M. N., Scavenius, C., & Enghild, J. J. (2021). The last meal of Tollund Man: New analyses of his gut content. Antiquity, 95(383), 1195–1212. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.98
Purdy, B. A. (2018). Wet site archaeology. CRC Press.
Figure 1: McCann, P. (2015). Lindow Moss: Calls for investigation into sinking Cheshire bog. https://www.bbc.com. BBC. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-35168899.
Figure 2: Strom, C. (2017). Osterby Man Still Has a Great Hairdo Nearly 2,000 Years On! https://www.ancient-origins.net. Ancient Origins. Retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/osterby-man-still-has-great-hairdo-nearly-2000-years-007683.
Figure 3: Mummipedia Wiki. (n.d.). Tollund Man. https://mummipedia.fandom.com. Retrieved from https://mummipedia.fandom.com/wiki/Tollund_Man.
Figure 4: Alchetron. (2019). Grauballe Man’s Manicured Fingernails. https://alchetron.com. Retrieved from https://alchetron.com/Grauballe-Man.
Figure 5: Current Archaeology. (2009). Who killed Lindow Man? https://archaeology.co.uk. Retrieved from https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/who-killed-lindow-man.htm.