Secrets of the bog people
Meet the Mysterious iron Age MUMMIES Buried in northwest europe’s SWAMPS
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