Se­crets of the bog peo­ple

Meet the Mys­te­ri­ous iron Age MUM­MIES Buried in north­west europe’s SWAMPS

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Jerry Glover

Meet the Iron Age mum­mies buried in Europe’s swamps

the Iron Age bog bod­ies of north­west Europe are some of the best nat­u­rally pre­served hu­man re­mains from the an­cient past. While their skin looks like tanned leather and their bod­ies are seem­ingly de­flated, they are pretty sim­i­lar to you or me, which is as­ton­ish­ing con­sid­er­ing many of them are at least 2,000 years old.

Hun­dreds of these mum­mies have been found in the peat bogs of Eng­land, Ire­land, the Nether­lands, Den­mark and north­ern Germany. While some­times only heads and arms are un­cov­ered, the com­plete ca­dav­ers that have been un­earthed of­ten bear traces of ter­ri­ble vi­o­lence.

Oc­ca­sion­ally hanged or stabbed or with their throats and stom­achs slashed open, the shock­ing ways in which these peo­ple died both re­pels and fas­ci­nates. One of his­tory’s most pro­found mur­der mys­ter­ies, no con­tem­po­rary writ­ing can tell us for sure why they were killed or buried in vi­o­la­tion of the nor­mal death rites. But ev­i­dence in­creas­ingly sug­gests they were key play­ers in hu­man sac­ri­fices.

All of the bod­ies were in­terred in peat bogs, which form in low-ly­ing ground where moss gath­ers. The small amount of oxy­gen pre­vents bac­te­ria from break­ing down the dead veg­e­ta­tion each year. The re­sult­ing peat in­creases at a rate of just one me­tre ev­ery 1,000 years, cre­at­ing a cock­tail of chem­i­cals — hu­mic acid — that is able to pre­serve soft ma­te­rial and bones, tan­ning skin like leather.

The ear­li­est record of a bog body find comes from Shalkholz Fen in Germany in 1640. We don’t know what peo­ple thought of the mum­mies when they were first dis­cov­ered but it was claimed that one found at Har­ald­skaer in Jut­land was the lost re­mains of Queen Gunnhild in 1835. Ac­cord­ing to Ice­landic sagas, she was a cun­ning witch who was lured to the bog and drowned by King Har­ald Blue­tooth in the 10th cen­tury.

We now know that Har­ald­skaer Woman is ac­tu­ally 1,500 years old, so she can’t be Gunnhild. Her prox­im­ity to Blue­tooth’s royal res­i­dence at Jelling may have caused her misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Cases of mis­taken iden­tity have hap­pened else­where. The find­ing of a pre­served Iron Age woman’s head in Lin­dow Moss, Eng­land, in 1983 caused a lo­cal man to con­fess to the mur­der and dis­posal of his wife in the same bog — a mis­take that led to his con­vic­tion.

Re­search into Den­mark’s bogs be­gan in 1859 when Con­rad En­gel­hardt in­ves­ti­gated Ny­dam Mose in Jut­land, find­ing iron weapons and an oak boat. They have now yielded over 500 Iron Age bod­ies from be­tween 400 BCE and 400 CE.

For his as­ton­ish­ing preser­va­tion and calm ap­pear­ance, the most cel­e­brated of these is the man who was found in Jut­land’s Tol­lund Fen in 1950. He lay on his side as if sleep­ing, his only at­tire a pointed skin cap, fas­tened un­der the chin by a hide string, and a hide belt around his waist. A rope of two twisted leather strings en­cir­cled his neck, drawn tight to cause lac­er­a­tions, then it coiled across the shoul­der and down his back. A few days of stub­ble cov­ered his chin and up­per lip but other­wise he was clean-shaven.

Dan­ish police took a fin­ger­print anal­y­sis from his right thumb and found that it was in­dis­tin­guish­able from that of a liv­ing per­son, a re­sult of him be­ing buried in the bog when the wa­ter was cold. If it had been more than 4°C, the soft body parts would have be­gun to de­com­pose be­fore the hu­mic acid could en­tirely in­fuse the corpse, ar­rest­ing the de­cay.

Tol­lund Man’s ex­cel­lent de­com­po­si­tion was due to a large amount of col­la­gen fi­bres that were tanned by the moss in his der­mis (in­ner) skin layer, as well as the ker­atin of his hair, fin­gers and toe­nails. The tan­ning ef­fect also pre­served the lac­er­a­tions made by the noose and his wounds. Like­wise, his brain was re­mark­ably well pre­served and his teeth were in­tact.

Like most other Dan­ish bog bod­ies, Tol­lund Man lived and died around the mid­point of the pe­riod when iron­work emerged in north­west Europe, be­tween 500 BCE and 200 CE. Anaer­o­bic bac­te­ria, which don’t need oxy­gen, con­cen­trate iron de­posits around bogs, leav­ing be­hind oily springs to show these iron ‘bog ore’ de­posits.

After about 500 BCE, the peo­ples in­hab­it­ing north­west Europe be­gan to source and work this ore, need­ing about four foot­ball-sized lumps to make just one axe head. Since iron is eas­ier to source than the tin and cop­per that make up bronze, and is more durable, its dis­cov­ery trans­formed lives and so­cial or­ders across Europe.

“no con­tem­po­rary writ­ing can tell us for Sure why they were killed And Buried”

The bogs that made this pos­si­ble with peat and iron ore were there­fore con­sid­ered to be special and sa­cred places, and Tol­lund Man’s area was rich in the stuff.

In the age of the bog peo­ple, the dead were of­ten burnt on a pyre. Af­ter­wards, their bones were gath­ered up, put in urns or wrapped in cloth and of­ten buried un­der a mound with a few goods. To some cul­tures, cre­ma­tion was bound with the be­lief that fire helped the body give up the soul so it could travel to the land of the dead to be re­born. Con­trast this with the buri­als of the mum­mies, who were left in places where their re­mains were sus­pended with their souls un­able to leave, and it sug­gests their deaths served a dif­fer­ent pur­pose.

Be­fore dying, the vic­tims all re­ceived a last meal. Tol­lund Man and Grauballe Man en­joyed a grainy gruel, and the lat­ter’s con­tained a hal­lu­cino­genic fun­gus. He was killed when his throat was neatly sliced, from ear to ear.

The lack of fruits and vegeta­bles shows that these men died in win­ter or early spring, pos­si­bly dur­ing the mid­win­ter cel­e­bra­tions, a time con­nected to sacri­fice. Per­haps their vil­lages were on the edge of famine and the men were gifts for the gods in hope of a more suc­cess­ful har­vest.

Lit­tle gold fig­ures found in Dan­ish bogs depict naked fig­ures with belts and neck nooses, just like Tol­lund Man. The Ose­berg Ta­pes­try and pic­ture stones, both dat­ing from 700 to 900 CE, also show hang­ings as of­fer­ings to Odin, the god who had hanged him­self to gain power. Sev­eral cen­turies sep­a­rate these Vik­ing-age arte­facts from the bog bod­ies but even so, they in­di­cate how the mum­mies may have been sac­ri­ficed as part of a cul­tic cer­e­mony where hang­ing and stran­gu­la­tion were of­ten used.

Be­fore be­com­ing Bri­tain’s best-pre­served bog body, Lin­dow Man ate a cooked mixed grain cake called ban­nock. Some of it was burnt, pos­si­bly sin­gling him out for death. He also ate mistle­toe, prized by the Druids as a pow­er­ful medicine.

From other clues such as the fox fur around his arm and his well-kept fin­ger­nails, it has been spec­u­lated that he was an aris­to­crat or even a Druid priest-in-train­ing.

His un­usual death — his re­mains show signs of blud­geon­ing, gar­rot­ting and stran­gling — and the year of around 60 CE make it pos­si­ble that he was rit­u­ally sac­ri­ficed as a last re­sort against the Ro­man ad­vance. Gen­eral Gaius Sue­to­nius Pauli­nus was march­ing to­wards the is­land of An­gle­sey, a Druid strong­hold, and the bog man’s lo­ca­tion was en route. More­over, his death also co­in­cided with Boudicca’s re­bel­lion against the Ro­mans.

The man­ner of Lin­dow Man’s death is echoed by Wors­ley Man, found in the out­skirts of Manch­ester, who was buried around 100 CE. The idea of them be­ing sac­ri­ficed to avert Ro­man con­quest is re­futed by ex­perts who see them as mur­der vic­tims. But if Lin­dow Man was mur­dered, why was he naked and in such a re­mote place? Sim­i­larly, if Tol­lund Man was hanged as a crim­i­nal, why was he so care­fully buried?

The high sta­tus of some of these bog peo­ple can also be seen in Ire­land. For in­stance, Old Croghan Man from County Of­faly was tall and en­joyed a meat-rich diet and man­i­cures. In County Meath,

mean­while, Clony­ca­van Man’s hair was styled with an ex­pen­sive gel made from plant oil and pine resin, likely im­ported from France or Spain. Both were killed, mu­ti­lated and de­posited in bogs near hills where kings were in­vested or at the in­ter­sec­tions of tribal bound­aries.

Ir­ish leg­ends add to the idea that these two men were kings who were sac­ri­ficed to en­sure the fer­til­ity of their lands as they had failed their com­mu­ni­ties in hard times. The 4,000-year-old Cashel Man from County Laois, pinned in the bog with stakes, at­tests to a very an­cient Ir­ish tra­di­tion of rit­ual killing.

Dyed woollen clothes, am­ber beads and a bone comb tes­tify to the wealth of Den­mark’s Hul­dremose Woman, who met her vi­o­lent end in ap­prox­i­mately 150 CE. Re­cent anal­y­sis of her gar­ments re­vealed their ex­otic for­eign ori­gin, which prob­a­bly meant she had ei­ther traded or trav­elled abroad for them. Al­ter­na­tively, she may pos­si­bly have em­i­grated to Den­mark.

Sim­i­lar un­usual con­nec­tions came from a study of Har­ald­skaer Woman in 2014, kin­dling the idea that these women were con­sid­ered to be special be­cause of their out­sider sta­tus and they were thus more ef­fi­ca­cious as sac­ri­fices. This the­ory ar­gues that they were shamanic wise­women who sup­pos­edly went will­ingly as gifts to the marsh god­dess, bless­ing their com­mu­ni­ties with their own special sac­ri­fi­cial value as a re­sult. Of course, it also pos­si­ble that they were de­spised for­eign­ers or pris­on­ers of war.

“Both were killed, Mu­ti­lated And de­posited in Bogs near hills where kings were in­vested”

Ac­cord­ing to Tac­i­tus, a Ro­man his­to­rian, Ger­manic tribes pun­ished cow­ards and the “dis­rep­utable of body” by drown­ing them in marshes un­der wat­tled hur­dles, which may have been what hap­pened to Har­ald­skaer Woman. This also oc­curred in Ire­land and north­ern Germany.

Since these tribes didn’t write about them­selves, Tac­i­tus is one of our best sources about them, al­though his records re­lied on sec­ond-hand sources re­gard­ing their cus­toms as he never vis­ited them him­self. His ac­counts also serve to jus­tify the sub­ju­ga­tion of the ‘bar­bar­ians’ at the fringes of the Ro­man Em­pire.

In the most sig­nif­i­cant weather event since the Ice Age, Europe be­came dra­mat­i­cally colder and wet­ter after about 750 BCE. The re­sult­ing bad har­vests pro­duced may have stoked a wide­spread feel­ing that the an­gry gods had to be pla­cated by hu­man sac­ri­fices.

So-called ‘wa­ter cults’ saw a re­vival in west­ern Europe, with of­fer­ings of weapons start­ing at lakes and rivers - per­haps these in­cluded hu­mans when peo­ple were re­ally des­per­ate. Just how many of these killings were hap­pen­ing? Since wa­ter doesn’t pre­serve skin and bone, we can only ever know the bog sac­ri­fices and fur­ther clues ex­ist to sig­nify the im­por­tance of mak­ing of­fer­ings to wa­tery places.

The rarest and most pres­ti­gious of bog de­po­si­tions in Den­mark’s pre-ro­man Iron Age co­in­cid­ing with the bog bod­ies are bronze and sil­ver caul­drons, a num­ber of which have been dis­cov­ered. The finest is the Gun­de­strup Caul­dron, which may have orig­i­nated as far away as the Balkans be­fore it was dis­man­tled and in­terred in the Dan­ish bog around 100 BCE, close to the sites of three bog bod­ies. On 13 sil­ver plates, it de­picts the mys­ter­ies of the mum­mies’ re­li­gion, ei­ther the male or fe­male pan­theon of deities, or pos­si­bly re­li­gious of­fi­cials such as Druids or shamans.

One plate shows a large fig­ure plung­ing war­riors into a kind of caul­dron, while ‘re­born’ war­riors on horses ride away in a pro­ces­sion. An­other panel shows a cross-legged horned fig­ure hold­ing a torc and a snake — a shamanic god among an­i­mals.

In Celtic mythol­ogy, the ori­gins of caul­drons are al­ways mys­te­ri­ous. As a sym­bol of re­birth, the caul­dron is part of other Indo-euro­pean tra­di­tions and it fore­shad­ows the sym­bol of the Holy Grail, while its iconog­ra­phy shares mo­tifs with an­cient art from the Near East and even In­dia with its cross-legged shaman.

Most schol­ars be­lieve that the caul­drons were vo­tive of­fer­ings to the indige­nous gods, per­haps be­cause the ear­lier hu­man sac­ri­fices were not pro­pi­tious enough for them and the deities re­quired more pre­cious gifts. The more valu­able the sacri­fice, the more pleased the gods would be.

Even so, the pos­si­bil­ity of how this and the other caul­drons were hid­den to pre­vent them be­com­ing the spoils of other tribes, later for­got­ten when the com­mu­ni­ties who in­terred them were dis­placed, can­not be ruled out. With no first-hand ac­counts to tell us for cer­tain, we are only able to hazard con­jec­tures. Yet as the ev­i­dence grows, so schol­ar­ship tends more to­wards the idea of rit­u­alised of­fer­ings.

The great­est amount of Iron Age bog de­posits in Den­mark com­prise swords, spear­heads and shields that were bent or bro­ken be­fore be­ing care­fully ar­ranged in bun­dles and placed in bogs or cast out into lakes. Serv­ing as vo­tive of­fer­ings to the gods, these weapons were usu­ally the war booty from mil­i­tary clashes be­tween Scan­di­na­vians and Ro­mans. Of Den­mark’s many weapon-sacri­fice sites, the most prom­i­nent is Illerup Ådal, where at least three de­posits amount to thou­sands of items.

Julius Cae­sar, who re­lated sim­i­lar ac­tiv­i­ties when he was in Gaul, cor­rob­o­rates the rit­ual pur­pose of these weapon-sac­ri­fices. Ul­ti­mately, for hav­ing sup­plied the weapons for these con­flicts to armies on both sides, Ro­man mer­chants prof­ited the most.

Bog bod­ies are not known to ac­com­pany these types of de­posits and the Dan­ish weapon-sac­ri­fices reached a peak of in­ten­sity be­tween

200 and 450 CE, closely co­in­ci­dent with Ro­man ex­pan­sion into north­ern Europe and the wan­ing of rit­ual bog killings in Den­mark. Fur­ther­more, the emer­gence of a po­lit­i­cal nu­cleus in eastern Jut­land at the same time could also have been a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in the de­cline of the bog bod­ies as the weapon-sac­ri­fices re­placed the hu­man ones.

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, Ire­land’s bogs have also turned up a con­sid­er­able amount of Iron

Age but­ter. Re­sem­bling cheese, the so-called ‘bog but­ter’ usu­ally comes in earth­en­ware pots, or wrapped in an­i­mal skins or bark. In 2013, a 5,000-year-old piece weigh­ing some 45 kilo­grams was found in County Of­fay, and a 35-kilo­gram chunk that is 3,000 years old was found in County Kil­dare in 2009. Around 300 more ex­am­ples have emerged.

Since bogs make good nat­u­ral fridges, it could sim­ply be that the but­ter was de­posited to pre­serve it, or even to im­prove the taste. Those brave enough to have tried recre­ations de­scribe it as “gamey” and “funky”. But if the in­ten­tion was to re­trieve it later, then why was so much but­ter left in the ground?

Per­haps they were sur­vival caches, put away for leaner times and later for­got­ten. Yet since but­ter was valu­able — and later used to pay taxes — it seems much more likely that they were some­times buried as protection from thieves, or even made as sa­cred of­fer­ings to the gods.

The bog body phe­nom­e­non peaked around the 2nd cen­tury BCE be­fore tail­ing off around the time that the Ro­man Em­pire was spread­ing into the north of Europe. It’s worth men­tion­ing that this was also a time when po­lit­i­cal power was be­ing con­sol­i­dated in eastern Jut­land.

The pat­tern of the bog body deaths in sim­i­lar ways and by sim­i­lar means sug­gests that, de­spite the great dis­tances be­tween them, the peo­ples of north­west Europe shared broadly sim­i­lar per­cep­tions about the sa­cred im­por­tance of rit­ual of­fer­ings made to wa­tery places, even if the pre­cise cir­cum­stances of in­di­vid­ual bog bod­ies and de­po­si­tions vary.

These be­liefs lasted cen­turies and even sur­vive to­day when­ever a wish is made be­fore throw­ing a coin into a foun­tain. Out there, some­where in the mires, there must be other bog bod­ies that can tell us even more about their world and why they came to be.

“yet, AS the ev­i­dence grows, So Schol­ar­ship tends More to­wards the idea of rit­u­alised of­fer­ings”

An il­lus­tra­tion of the buried boat found at Ny­d­ham by Con­rad En­gel­hardt in 1859 A Dan­ish Iron Age long­house like the Tol­lund Man would have lived in The hang­ing god Odin, as de­picted in an Ice­landic man­u­script

Röst Girl, pos­si­bly the youngest bog body ever found

Red Franz was named after his hair colour, which was dyed by acids in the peat

Peat cut­ters har­vest­ing turf to burn have un­cov­ered nu­mer­ous bod­ies over the years Peat bogs have pre­served the bod­ies due to a cock­tail of chem­i­cals

The Hul­dremose Woman, who was found in Den­mark in 1879 The Gun­de­strup Caul­dron from Jut­land. It was prob­a­bly re­served for im­por­tant rit­u­als and re­veals con­nec­tions be­tween com­mu­ni­ties that were thou­sands of miles apart

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