Bog bodies, or the bog people, are extremely well-preserved ancient corpses that have been discovered in peatlands of Northern Europe. The peatlands appear to have served as mass graveyards from BCE to medieval times, and many of the bodies reveal violent deaths. From kings to commoners, adults to children, each body tells a different story of life and death. Many mummified peat bodies show amazing preservation, and the clues that accompany the mummies often reveal grim circumstances. The following are some of the most intriguing and mysterious bodies of the peatlands.
Exquisite Preservation of the Bog Bodies
So amazing is the state of preservation in some of the mummified bodies that their clothes and facial expressions are the same as they had been when they were buried. Even stomach contents, skin, nails, and body hair are still present. Typically, the bodies are found when workers drain sphagnum lands and extract the peat moss. They have been turning up for some time and no one is sure how many may have been found and discarded in the past. Today, documented discoveries of the bodies number around 1000.
The areas in which these bodies were placed are near saltwater. The peat moss in these wetlands collects the salt from the air and releases acid into the water. The water then permeates throughout the cells in the corpse. Because of the acid, bacteria cannot survive in these peatlands, so the bodies do not decompose as they normally would. Instead, they slowly become mummified. Over time, the process leaves the flesh of the corpse a dark leathery brown. This preservation has given us a lot of insight into how these bog people died, and it was often not a pretty death.
The Huldremose Woman was found in Denmark in 1879. She lived during the Iron Age sometime between 160 BC and 340 AD. Analysis of the contents of her stomach indicate that she had recently eaten rye bread before her death.
Before the woman died, she had broken one of her legs, although it had healed before she died. She wore a plaid cape, a scarf, and skirt, all made of wool. A comb and headband were found as well. Lacerations on one of the feet were thought to be post-mortem injuries inflicted by a shovel until they were then evaluated to have happened near the time of death.
In 1938, the Elling Woman was found in Denmark in the same peatland as the Tollund Man (below). Experts date her death at around 280 BCE. They discovered her body wrapped with sheepskin and a leather cloak, and they believe she died of hanging in some type of ritual sacrifice. At the time of death, Elling Woman wore her hair in an intricate 35″ braid that is still preserved and visible today.
The Tollund Man is probably the most disturbing of all the bog bodies. With a peaceful face that is perfectly preserved and life-like, Tollund Man appears to be sleeping. His woolen sheepskin hat that was on him at the time of death still cradles his head. Radiographic images revealed a distended tongue, evident of strangulation. The 30 to 40-year-old man was hung in a fashion similar to that of the Elling Woman. Researchers believe he too was a human sacrifice rather than the subject of a criminal execution. This is based on how his undertakers carefully arranged his body and closed his eyes and mouth. His intestinal contents indicate that he ate barley, flaxseed, and knotgrass 12-24 hours prior to his death. Except for the noose cinched tightly around his neck, and his hat, Tollund Man was naked. The photograph below shows facial hair stubble of about a day’s growth.
Other Gruesome Deaths in Peatlands
Old Croghan Man
In 2003, diggers in an Irish peatland uncovered the torso of the Old Croghan Man. He appeared to have been subjected to torture. What is left of the man’s body contains several stab and slice wounds. He was also cut in half and beheaded, and one of his arms displayed defense wounds. A rope had been run through two holes in his upper arms, presumably as a means of restraining him.
A leather armband adorned his left arm, indicating that he probably belonged to an upper class or nobility. Scholars estimate the height of Croghan Man to have been around 6′ 6″, which was giant for his time. Another indication of noble status were his soft hands and his fingernails, which were manicured and did not bear the wear and tear of manual labor. He was in his twenties at the time of his murder.
Researchers believe Old Croghan man may have been a king. His body was in a place that probably was once a lake at the bottom of a hill that had been used for ancient kingship ceremonies.
The Clonycavan Man was also discovered in Ireland in 2003, just 25 miles away from where the Old Croghan Man was discovered. Radiocarbon dating suggests that he and the Old Croghan Man lived between 392 B.C. and 201 B.C. He had been struck in the head three times with an axe, and once again in the chest. Deep wounds in his skull and face indicate that he was murdered violently. Like the Old Croghan Man, the Clonycavan Man was in his early twenties, and experts believe that he too may have been a king.
Interestingly, the Clonycavan Man’s hair was styled in a sort of ancient pompadour with a hair tie. His hair is preserved this way. What is so interesting about this is that the Clonycavan Man used a hair preparation made of oils and pine resin that he had probably acquired from the Iberian Peninsula. This indicates trade was taking place between Ireland and the mainland of Europe. It also points to the possibility that Clonycavan Man was quite wealthy and had the means to trade.
Analysis of the Bog Bodies
The oldest of the bog bodies dates from around 8000 BCE and the youngest from early medieval times. Clothing found on some of these bodies is preserved perfectly with them. This tells us a lot about the materials they used and where they came from, how the clothes were constructed, and perhaps also about the deaths themselves. Wool and leather scarves, hats, belts, shoes, capes and skirts also turned up with the bog bodies. Additionally, many valuable treasures, such as the Gundestrup cauldron, are relics of the peatlands.
Scientists have also been able to analyze the contents of some of the stomachs of the bog bodies. The type of foods can reveal whether the person was lower or upper class, and during what season of the year they died. Grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats were just some of the things in the alimentary canals. Some bog bodies appear to have been the recipients of trepanning surgery – the removal of a part of a skull – which has been a practice since Neolithic times.
Bog bodies exist in other places, but none are as well-preserved as those of northwestern Europe. These bodies have given quite a bit of insight into the people of their various times, but they still hold many secrets. We can get a good glimpse of the food they ate, the weapons they used and the clothing they wore. However, the reasons they were murdered is still a matter of debate. Were they criminals or the victims of tribal wars that dominated the area at the time? Were they ritual sacrifices to appease the fertility and agriculture goddess? Although there are many theories, we may never truly know.
*Updated by HM staff 1/2/17.