Bog Bodies

Bog Bodies, ancient human bodies found preserved in the peatland bogs of northwestern Europe, mainly in Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. Hundreds of bodies have been discovered over the centuries, mostly by peat-cutters. Peat is partially decayed and carbonized plant material that is burned as a fuel. The bodies were preserved as natural mummies by the special chemical conditions in the bogs, which combine a lack of oxygen with cold, acidic water and chemicals from the breakdown of peat moss, also called sphagnum ( `see `Wetland). While some bodies are in a fragmentary condition, others are extremely well preserved. Many bodies show signs of violent deaths, possibly as human sacrifices.

The majority of bog bodies date from the

The majority of bog bodies date from the final centuries bc and the early centuries ad, during a period of European history called the Iron Age. The bodies come from regions inhabited by ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples. Because cremation was the usual funerary practice in Europe at the time, the bodies that were deliberately buried in the bogs must have been special in some way. Archaeologists think that the bog bodies may be linked to the religious beliefs of the period, since bogs, lakes, and other watery places were seen as the dwelling places of gods. The bogs were also a source of bog iron ( `see `Goethite), an iron ore used for metalworking and weapons. Iron Age peoples left objects made of iron, bronze, copper, gold, and silver in the bogs, likely as offerings.

Preservation and Condition of Bodies

Dead peat moss that accumulates in cold

Dead peat moss that accumulates in cold, acidic bogs gradually turns into peat, a carbon-rich organic material that can be dried and burned as a fuel. A number of chemicals produced by the breakdown of sphagnum moss are thought to contribute to the preservation of bodies, in combination with an oxygen-free environment, cold temperatures, and tannic acid. The special chemical conditions in the bogs prevented decay of soft tissue and acted much like leather tanning. Skin, hair, internal organs, and items of clothing could be almost perfectly preserved but stained brown or black. However, the acidic waters partially or completely dissolved the minerals in bone and some bodies became flattened and distorted over time.

The Iron Age bog bodies are often naked

The Iron Age bog bodies are often naked, although some have cloaks or capes over or near them. Some items of ancient clothing that the bodies once wore may have been made of fragile materials that broke down over time. Many bodies show signs of violent deaths, including stabbing, slashing, clubbing, strangling, hacking of body parts, or possible forced drowning by being pinned under water with branches, logs, or forked sticks. Scientists can study wounds or injuries preserved on the bodies to learn how the people died. However, some damage to the bog bodies originally thought to come from ancient acts of violence resulted instead from the way the remains were accidentally dug up in modern times.

Famous Bog Bodies

Most of the bog bodies are adult men. Grauballe

Most of the bog bodies are adult men. Grauballe Man (dated 3rd century bc) was found in Denmark in 1952 and had his throat cut from ear to ear; Lindow Man (dated 1st century ad), discovered in Cheshire, England, in 1984, was struck on the head, garroted, and knifed in the throat. A young male called Windeby I (dated 1st century ad) was found in 1950 in northern Germany buried under logs and branches; the body was originally misidentified as a female and dubbed Windeby Girl.

The most famous bog body is that of Tollund

The most famous bog body is that of Tollund Man (3rd century bc), found in Denmark in 1950. He was about 30 to 40 years old when he died, and stood 1.6 m (5 ft 2 in) high. He was found naked except for a leather cap and belt. His face looks as if he is sleeping peacefully, but he was hanged by the leather noose around his neck. His internal organs were found intact and revealed that his last meal was a gruel of barley and many wild seeds, available in winter or early spring.

Bodies of women and young girls have also

Bodies of women and young girls have also been found. Yde Girl (early 1st century ad), found in Holland in 1897, was aged 16 years; the right half of her hair had been cropped and she met a violent death by strangulation. Huldremose Woman (1st century ad) was found in Denmark in 1879; her limbs had been repeatedly hacked, with the right arm cut off completely. Elling Woman (3rd century bc), found in Denmark in 1938, had been hanged like Tollund Man.

Studying Bog Bodies

The Celtic and Germanic peoples of Europe

The Celtic and Germanic peoples of Europe during the Iron Age period did not leave written records of their beliefs and customs that might explain why some members of their societies were violently killed and buried in the bogs. During roughly the same period, the ancient Romans conquered or came into contact with regions inhabited by the Celts and Germanic tribes. Ancient Roman authors reported many details about other cultures, but modern historians note that such accounts were often not direct observations and came instead from second-hand and third-hand sources.

Descriptions of foreign societies were

Descriptions of foreign societies were also sometimes used to criticize life in contemporary Rome. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the northern Germanic tribes killed cowards, deserters, and homosexuals, and staked their bodies in bogs and swamps. Tacitus said he approved of the brutal practice and so likely was trying to shame Roman society by comparison.

When bog bodies were discovered in recent

When bog bodies were discovered in recent times, one commonly accepted theory was that they represented offenders who had been brutally punished and given dishonorable burials. However, close examination of bodies such as those found in Ireland and Britain shows that some victims appeared well fed and well groomed, and did not show signs of having done hard manual labor, such as callused hands, suggesting they may have been members of an elite class.

Other theories to explain the bog bodies

Other theories to explain the bog bodies include ritual religious sacrifice. For example, Lindow Man had been bludgeoned, strangled, and slashed across the throat, a combination that recalls forms of sacrifice to three different Celtic gods. He also had traces of mistletoe in his stomach, a plant sacred to the Druids, religious leaders of the Celts ( `see `Druidism). Other victims may have been killed as political rivals to tribal or other leaders. Some bodies found in Ireland had been cut into pieces, possibly to be buried in various spots marking territorial borders. In some cases where there are few signs of violence, the victims may have wandered into the bogs and drowned by accident.

The practice of violently killing individuals

The practice of violently killing individuals and burying them in bogs during the Iron Age may have no single explanation. Customs and beliefs likely varied over time and in different places. Insights may eventually come from careful research. Archaeologists and other scientists can study bog bodies using modern technology such as X rays, computed tomography (CT) scanning, and endoscopic techniques, as well deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis. Bog bodies are now often conserved by treating them with polyethylene glycol and then freeze-drying them. Some of the intact bog bodies have been put on display in museums, providing a rare look at ancient humans preserved by a special combination of natural chemicals and conditions.

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