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Bog Bodies: Faces From The Past

On May 8, 1950, two men were cutting peat at Tollund Fen in Denmark when they were horrified to see a human face protruding from the peat. What they had first assumed to be the buried remains of a murder victim turned out to be of quite a different significance and the local police sent for archeologist Peter Glob. The body, which became known as the Tollund Man, was lying naked except for a leather cap and belt, with his legs drawn up in a fetal position. His eyes were closed and his lips pursed as though in peaceful prayer or meditation. That tranquility was shattered when the peat round his neck was removed, and the rope by which he was hanged about 2000 years ago was discovered.

The Tollund Man owes his survival to the special properties of the peat bog. In most soils the fleshy parts of the body quickly decay leaving only the bones of the dead individual; but in peaty conditions it sometimes happens that the flesh and skin are preserved while the bones of such bodies often become spongy or decay altogether. The Tollund Man was not the only ancient body to be recovered from a bog. Hundreds of "bog people" have been discovered in Northern Europe. Most of the remains have been discovered by local peat cutters decades or centuries ago, and the bodies have been lost or reburied. But modern scientific techniques can yield important evidence about the lives and deaths of these people from the past. By analyzing their gut contents we can learn about their diet and even the season of death (since some plants are only available at certain times of the year). The bodies themselves can tell us their sex and age, indicate diseases and medical conditions they might have suffered from and, of course, provide details of the way these people died.

Most of the bog people we know about died violent deaths, often from strangulation (hanging or garroting), blow to the head, or stabbing (and sometimes from more than one of these). It is possible that they were being punished for a crime, but there is some evidence to suggest that their deaths were ritual sacrifices. Perhaps the grain porridge found in the stomachs of some of the bodies were ritual meals. The nature of the deaths could be sacrificial methods of execution. In addition, it is likely that many of the victims were of high social standing: their hands are well kept and without calluses, and they were groomed and stripped before being deposited in the bog.

Not only bodies are found in bogs. During the Iron Age other ritual deposits were made in bogs and waterways, so it is likely that these places of earth and water had some special meaning to Iron Age people.

Bahn, Paul G., Ed. 100 Great Archeological Discoveries. London: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995.

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