Over the past few centuries, men harvesting peat in European bogs have discovered the preserved remains of hundreds of human corpses called “bog bodies”. Some of them are as old as 10,000 years. They have been recovered mostly in north-western Europe, especially in Ireland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark. What makes bog bodies so unique is they are fantastically well preserved, often with skins and internal organs intact, thanks to the unusual chemistry of peat bogs. Peat bogs are made up of accumulated layers of dead moss that contain highly acidic water, low temperature and poor oxygen, all of which contribute towards preservation of the bodies. Soft tissues, stomach contents, hair, nails, and clothing are frequently preserved well enough for forensic analysis. Stomach contents can provide information about diet, while teeth and nails provide useful clues about the person’s health and age. Clothes are an indicator of culture.
No one knows how these people ended up in the bogs, but the presence of horrific wounds, such as slashed throats, suggest the bodies had been sacrificed or executed as punishment for crimes. One of the most notable example of bog bodies, and one of the most well preserved, is Tollund Man, unearthed in Denmark in 1950.
The remarkably well preserved head of the Tollund Man. Photo credit: Robert Clark, National Geographic
Tollund Man was discovered on the morning of May 8th, 1950, by two brothers and their family who were digging for peat to be used as fuel, in a bog close to Bjældskovdal, an area located approximately 10 kilometres west of Silkeborg, in Denmark. Because the body appeared so fresh the workers believed they had discovered a recent murder victim. Radiocarbon dating of Tollund Man revealed that he died in approximately 375-210 BCE, or nearly 2,400 years ago.
When he was excavated, Tollund Man was completely naked except for a narrow leather belt around his waist. One end of the belt had an oblong cut, through which the other end of the belt had been pulled through and secured in a loop. On his head, he wore a pointed leather cap made of sheepskin and wool, fastened securely under his chin by a hide thong. Additionally, the corpse had a noose made of plaited animal hide drawn tight around the neck and trailing down his back. His hair was cropped so short as to be almost entirely hidden by his cap. There was short stubble on his chin and upper lip, suggesting that he had not shaved on the day of his death.
It is believed that Tollund Man was a victim of human sacrifice rather than an executed criminal because of the foetal arrangement of his body, and the fact that his eyes and mouth were closed.
The body is now displayed at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, although only the head is original. Because conservation techniques for organic material were insufficiently advanced in the early 1950s for the entire body to be preserved, the forensic examiners suggested the head be severed and the rest of the body remain unpreserved. Subsequently the body desiccated and the tissue disappeared. In 1987, the Silkeborg Museum reconstructed the body using the skeletal remains as a base and attached it the head.
Twelve years before Tollund Man was discovered, in 1938, another bog body of a 24-year-old woman called the Elling Woman was discovered only 80 metres from the place where the Tollund Man was later found. She had been hanged exactly like the Tollund Man and placed in the bog dressed in a cloak of sheepskin. She had a blanket made of skin or a cloak made of cowhide wrapped around her hips and legs. Her hair was gathered in a pigtail and tied into a knot at the back of her neck.
Just like the Tollund Man and Elling Woman, hundreds of more bog bodies have been discovered till date, the most recent discovery is that of the Cashel Man found in Ireland in 2011. Here are some of the best preserved bog bodies.
Old Croghan Man (350-175 B.C.) was found in Ireland in 2003. He died a gruesome death from a stab wound to the chest. He had been decapitated and had his body cut in half. He was exceptionally tall for his time, standing roughly 6' 6". This close-up picture of his hand shows remarkable preservation of the skin and nail. Photo credit
Clonycavan Man (392–201 BCE) was discovered three months before Old Croghan Man and was found in the same bog. Nothing remains below the waist of the man, either due to the turf cutting machine or when he had been brutally murdered. He was killed, probably as a ritual sacrifice, from a blow by a sharp instrument like an axe on top his head. Photo credit
Windeby Girl (41–118 CE) is one of the best preserved German bog bodies. It is believed to be the body of a 14-year-old girl, because of its slight build. Later DNA testing, however, shows the body was actually that of a sixteen-year-old boy. Photo credit
Grauballe Man (290 BCE), uncovered in 1952 in Jutland, Denmark. His fingers had been so perfectly preserved in the bog, that his finger prints had been taken, the same with Old Croghan Man. Grauballe Man was most likely a ritual sacrifice victim, killed by having his throat slit open. Analysis of his stomach’s content revealed that the Grauballe Man ate a soup laced with an hallucinogenic fungus perhaps intended to induce a trance-like state in a ritual that included his sacrifice. Photo credit
Huldremose Woman (160 BCE-340 CE), recovered in 1879 in Jutland, Denmark. At the time of death, the woman was more than 40 years old, which is considered elderly for people of that time period. Her right arm was severed, but the injury probably occurred by shovels during the unearthing of the body. A wool cord tied her hair and enveloped her neck, but forensic analysis found no indication of death by strangulation. Photo credit
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