In an ancient bog at the foot of a fairy-haunted hill, peat-cutting work lays bare the body of a giant. Carbon dating suggests that the man died at the height of the Iron Age, around 275 B.C.; forensic examination shows that he died hard, stabbed through a lung and then decapitated with an axe. After killing him, his executioners chopped his body in half at the diaphragm, and at some point, perhaps while he was still alive, they also inflicted two pairs of unusual wounds on him. Deep cuts almost severed both his nipples, and his arms were vigorously pierced so that twisted lengths of hazel withy could be threaded through from side to side, presumably to pinion him. After that, his mutilated torso was sunk in a pool where, over the years, bog moss grew up to cradle and cover him, until he became part of the mire itself.
As the dead man’s assailants were most likely perfectly aware, the unusual properties of the bog and the moss combined to preserve his remains. The sour waters of high bogs are as acidic as vinegar, and they support practically no life, yet they contain bog oak – which deeply tans organic matter – and sphagnum moss, which uniquely binds both nitrogen and oxygen, inhibiting bacteria. Trapped in this nutrient poor, anaerobic environment, human remains are preserved almost intact; bones may be leeched and gradually demineralise, but flesh and wood, horn, fur, hair and textiles can and do survive for millennia. So when ditching work uncovered the torn remains that archaeologists now call “Old Croghan Man” outside the little village of Croghan, in County Offaly in the heart of Ireland, investigators could still make out the pores on his skin and inspect the well-manicured fingernails that showed that he had done no manual work and hinted at high status. They could calculate that he had once stood 6 feet 5 inches [1.95m] tall: a great height now, freakish for his day. And they could feel reasonably certain that that height had been made possible by an unexpectedly rich diet, predominantly comprised of meat.
Beyond that, though, almost everything is mystery. We can only speculate as to why the giant’s life was cut so short, and why he died while in his twenties, at the height of his physical powers. We cannot know why the people who killed him felt it necessary to inflict such violence on his body. Nor do we properly understand what the peculiar mutilations that they added to his torso meant: what magic they were intended to perform, or what catastrophe they were intended to commemorate – or, perhaps, prevent.
What we can say is that Old Croghan Man must have been special in some way. His size and strength would certainly have made him physically quite different – he must have been, Valerie Hall suggests, “the golden boy of his tribe. Those big, capable hands… even in death, he oozes confidence, status, presence.” He did not die a normal death, nor was his body handled in a manner typical of his time and place. Early Iron Age burials usually involved cremation, while late ones substituted interral, almost always with grave goods of some sort. Bog burials seem to have been rare, though of course we cannot be sure how many there were. Estimates run into thousands, yet, while archaeologists are careful to point out that there are several different sorts of bog body – and that some of the people whose remains survive apparently died natural deaths – a residue of several dozen hacked and mutilated corpses suggest that other, highly specific, motives were occasionally at work. The members of this last group combine thought-provoking characteristics (babies are under-represented; the young and people with obvious deformities or disabilities are heavily over-represented) with the preserved marks of such extreme violence that it amounts sometimes to overkill. It has been suggested that the evidence shows that their deaths came in the form of stage-managed ceremonies: a theatre of death that culminated in human sacrifice.
Reconstructing what went on so long ago is more than usually difficult. The civilisations that produced the bog bodies left no written accounts of themselves; we know little about their customs and religions, and much of the evidence we do have comes from outsiders who had their evidence at third hand, and saw the rites they wrote about as evidence of barbarism. Caesar described the ancient British druids, and noted the Gaulish custom of herding victims into giant wooden structures and then burning them alive – killings that involved the infamous “wicker man.” The historian Tacitus heard that the Roman dead from the decisive battle that took place deep in the Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D. had their heads nailed to trees, while “in adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they immolated tribunes and centurions of the first rank.” He also took the opportunity, in his Germania, to praise the tribes who lived beyond Rome’s north-eastern borders for the straightforward nature of their justice. According to Tacitus (whose source was possibly the accounts of traders who had visited the north), members of the Germanic tribes could “launch an accusation before the Council or bring a capital charge. The punishment varies to suit the crime. The traitor and deserter are hanged on trees, the coward, the shirker and the unnaturally vicious are drowned in mirey swamps under a cover of wattled hurdles.” The geographer Strabo, meanwhile, noted that the Gauls “used to stab a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a dagger, and foretell the future from his convulsions.” And the anthropologist J.G. Frazer based his pioneering study The Golden Bough on Roman accounts of rituals in another sacred grove, this one at Lake Nemi in central Italy. Amongst other customs peculiar to Nemi – Frazer thought – was the ritual drowning of slaves who had taken part in fertility rituals.
Such passages are difficult to interpret. Frazer took literally records that were not contemporary, and drew debatable links to other customs from around the world. Tacitus was more interested in condemning what he saw as the decadence of Roman society and justice than he was in compiling accurate lives of the northern tribes. Yet there is also archaeological evidence that helps us grasp the fundamentals of Iron Age religion. We have items showing that water really was associated with votive offerings; at the dramatically-situated Llyn Fawr, at the head of a South Wales valley, the draining of the lake revealed that a large collection of important Bronze Age artefacts had been deposited there around 700 B.C., while in a Danish bog at Gundestrup, a silver cauldron, covered in images of gods and sacrifices, had been dismantled into more than half a dozen pieces, then “reverently deposited on a tiny island” about a hundred years before the time of Christ.
The difficulty comes when we venture to interpret this evidence. What are we to make, for instance, of the charred remains exhumed at Aalestrup in Denmark – a burned body found covered in the severed wings of six jackdaws and two crows? It is easy for us to imagine that the birds’ wings were intended to bear a human soul to some celestial heaven – but when we do so, we impose a modern vision of religion on an ancient civilisation quite unlike our own. Much the same can be said of the – to us bizarre – skeletons exhumed at Cladh Hallan, on the Hebridean island of South Uist. Archaeologists excavating a stone roundhouse there dating to 1600 B.C. uncovered a pair of skeletons that had been placed in the foundations. Close examination of these remains revealed inexplicable anomalies. Both bodies had been mummified, then kept above ground for at least 300 years before their burial. When they were finally interred, they were also rearranged. One body turned out to be made up of pieces of three people; the second, a woman’s, had been given a man’s head – and two incisors extracted from the man’s skull were found clutched in the woman’s hands. Meanwhile, at Verulamium, in what was once the heart of Roman Britain, the head of an adolescent boy was found at the bottom of a deep shaft. The child had been killed by a heavy blow to the head, after which his skull had been defleshed and then apparently displayed on the end of a pole. When it was finally buried, it was placed next to a whetstone and a puppy.
Archaeologists joke grimly about their tendency to label things they cannot understand as the products of ritual, and it is almost certainly true that – had we better evidence – anomalies of the sort uncovered at Cladh Hallan and Verulamium might seem considerably less strange to us. It’s far from certain, however, that the same is true of bog bodies. For one thing, we have more of them; for another, a number display certain key similarities. These combine to force most students of the phenomenon to agree that a significant proportion of the dead really were victims of orchestrated killing, and perhaps the subjects of ritual and sacrifice as well.
The best place to begin this investigation is with the bogs themselves. Marshes, fens and mires of various descriptions are not at all like other places. They exist at the margins of human settlement, and for the most part they were, and are, rarely visited; Lindow Moss, the most famous such site in Britain, is fully 18 miles from the nearest known Iron Age settlement. We should be careful not to exaggerate this isolation; ancient wooden trackways thread their way through several otherwise impassable morasses, laid, perhaps, to permit the exploitation of bog iron – low-grade metal that was the only readily accessible source of iron in ancient times. Mires could also be sources of woods such as alder and hazel that were thought to have magical powers, as well as of birds and other foods; one bog body, a teenager dug out of a northern German marsh and known today as Uchter Moor girl, is thought to have slipped and died by accident while jumping from hummock to hummock in search of eggs or bilberries.
For the most part, however, traditions stress the liminality and otherness of places such as these. The monster Grendel, in Beowulf, had his lair in a marsh, as did the Will o’ the Wisp – a supernatural light that tempted travellers off the paths and lured them to their deaths in quagmires. In more recent times, the fens and moors of northern Europe were thought to be good places to deposit “troublesome bodies,” not least those of suicides and witches – the sort of people who might turn into wiedergängers, the malicious revenants of German legend. Perhaps the way in which bodies were preserved by bogs was thought to hobble spirits and deny them resolution; perhaps, when the marsh waters were still, they acted as mirrors that seemed to offer access to another world. “It is easy,” the archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green argues, “to see how bogs encouraged awe, terror and wonder. Not only are they dangerous to the unwary, but they emit vapours, curling from the surface like wraiths from the Otherworld, and little flames from bog gasses can flicker into life as if they are dancing spirits.”
One surviving piece of evidence for the way in which Iron Age people thought about wetlands and marshes (which were, millennia before the development of the technology required to drain them, considerably more commonplace then than they are now) is the discovery of “bog guardians” – wooden figures exhumed from layers of ancient peat. At least six such finds have been made in Britain, and others in Denmark; among the latter are a pair of slender wooden figures – one male and one female – dating to the second century B.C. and found in a bog at Braak. Set upright in the marsh, these would have been visible for miles across the desolate local landscape; traces of fires once lit nearby suggest the spot was used for ritual or feasting. Bog guardians are also frequently sexualised. Thought they tend to be crudely carved, special attention has been given to the genitals; male figures have holes gouged in their groins to allow for the insertion of erect penises that, in at least one case, were probably carved from quartz.
Perhaps the most interesting example of a bog guardian is the five-foot-tall wooden figure found at Ballachulish, near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, almost 140 years ago. She had once stood upright, gazing over a flat peat plain towards a crossing point where an arm of the sea thrust its way inland. Found lying face down under 10 feet of peat when the foundations were dug for a new church wall, the carving dates to around 600 B.C. – making her the oldest human figure known from Scotland. The carving is almost life size, and, as originally found, boasted not only a prominent vulva, but also hands that appear to grasp a pair of severed penises. One further minor detail from the reports of her unearthing is worth mentioning here; its significance will become apparent later on. The Ballachulish figure was found covered with a lattice of branches and twigs, “a sort of wicker work” that puzzled the handful of local antiquarians who took an interest in her.
The peat that had covered the Ballachulish figure – and which cradled the remains of Old Croghan Man – is the characteristic product of mosses and mires. It is also the reason why bog guardians and bog bodies continue to be found. Peat is made up of dense layers of decayed vegetation, mostly bog moss and low shrubs, which settles at the bottom of pools and is compressed over the centuries by the weight of more plant matter descending onto it until it consumes the pools themselves. Dried and cut into turfs, it can be used as fuel, and practically all of remains that have been found in the belt of bogs that stretch across northern Europe from Ireland to Poland are the products of the peat-cutting industry that got its start during the 17th century. Early finds, uncovered by hand-turfing, tend to be more complete but are inevitably more poorly preserved. Advances in conservation techniques mean that more recent ones can be better conserved, but, on the other hand, the mechanisation of the peat extraction industry means that an unknown number are destroyed by heavy machinery, and those that survive this fate are often badly damaged. A recent discovery in Germany had to be reassembled from 100 chopped-up parts; the first bog body found at Lindow Moss was a severed head, spotted on a conveyer belt as it was about to be fed into a shredding machine, and mistaken at first glance for a burst football.
How many of these bodies exist, or existed, is unknown. The best-known catalogue, compiled by the German expert Alfred Dieck and listing 1,800 finds, has recently been exposed as largely fraudulent, and current estimates are that around 130 sets of remains have been exhumed in Ireland, 140 in Britain, and 30 or more in the peat bogs of the Netherlands; a further 60 were dug up in Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, and several dozen more in Denmark. Only 50 or so of this total are bog mummies, however; the rest are skeletons – sometimes merely single bones. This discrepancy is a product of chemistry; low bogs are alkaline, nutrient-rich, and their high lime content dissolves flesh while preserving bones. High bogs are acidic and nutrient-poor, eroding metal, leaching bone and leaving one German bog body, Damendorf Man, as little more than a flattened envelope of slithery skin.
Surviving records suggest that most early finds were assumed to the remains of unlucky travellers who had wandered into mires, got lost, and been sucked down into them and drowned. The earliest bog body to attract significant attention was that of Gallagh Man, disinterred by farmers in the west of Ireland in 1821 and treated as something of a freak show exhibit at first; his remains were repeatedly reburied and then dug up again for passing travellers before finally being purchased by the Royal Irish Academy eight years later; it took another century-and-a-half for carbon dating to reveal that the remains had first been interred in about 300 B.C. By far the most significant nineteenth century discovery, however, was made in Denmark in 1835. Peat-cutting in a bog at Haraldskaer, in Jutland, unearthed the well-preserved body of a woman, complete with leather cape and scraps of clothing. She had been aged about 40 when she died, and the deep grooves found around her neck implied she had been garrotted or hanged.
The bog at Haraldskaer was only a few miles from what had once been Denmark’s main royal residence, at Jelling, and this coincidence led to the identification of the remains as those of Queen Gunhild, the infamous wife of the 10th century Norwegian monarch Eric Bloodaxe. Gunhild figures prominently in several Icelandic sagas as a cruel and cunning witch, but what excited Danish scholars most were two pieces of evidence that seemed to make the identification of the body with the queen quite reasonable. One was the discovery that the bog from which she had been disinterred had once been known as the Gutsmose – interpreted as “Gunhild’s Bog.” The other was a description in the sagas of the way in which the wicked queen had met her death: lured to Denmark by King Harald Bluetooth and then “drowned and sunk in miserable fashion in a terrifyingly deep bog.” So the identification of the bog body with the queen was widely accepted at the time – so much so that the remains were well looked-after and reverently re-interred in a local church, meaning that they are still remarkably intact. It was not until the 1970s that the theory had to be discarded when carbon dating work showed that “Queen Gunhild” had lived and died around the 5th century B.C.
Little, then, is really known about the men, women and children who are found in bogs. We can only guess at the reasons why their bodies were placed there. Even the Iron Age religious rituals that we reconstruct are guesswork; Christian Fischer has proposed that some Danish bog bodies were sacrifices to a “God of the Hanged” whom he sees as a forerunner of Odin, but we have no firm evidence that any such deity existed, nor any real idea why the votive offerings that we find in bogs – from containers of “bog butter” to twisted swords – are very often smashed or broken. And while archaeologists agree that a significant proportion of the people found interred in mires did not die natural deaths (Turner and Briggs, examining a sample of almost 40 English bog bodies, concluded that as many as one in three had been murdered or executed), there are at least five competing theories to explain why they were killed. For some specialists, the evidence suggests little more than muggings and assaults gone wrong. For others, it points to the execution of criminals and deviants, to scapegoating, to augury, or sacrifice.
We do possess a few clues to help us distinguish between these very different sorts of death. One is the nature of the wounds found on the bog people; another is the treatment of the remains themselves. Most had been denied conventional burial – in coffins, with grave goods – and many were apparently naked when they were interred. A handful – among them one of the two men exhumed at Weerdinge in the Netherlands in 1904 – had been disembowelled, and were found with their intestines protruding from their bellies, perhaps evidence of the sort of auguries described by Strabo. Others again appear to have been pinioned or pegged down to the bottom of their bogs. Several had enjoyed high status, like Old Croghan Man, but more were either crippled or deformed, and four or five seemed to have had their heads shaved shortly before their deaths. A significant minority had been decapitated, and a handful, finally, were the victims of terrifying violence, sustaining sufficient mortal injuries to have died several times over.
It is fair to say that most archaeologists accept that some members of this last group, at least, were ritually murdered. But others still harbour doubts, and it is certainly true that, while human sacrifice has long been a staple of both literature and film, confirmed cases are comparatively rare in the historical record. The Romans, as Gary Forsythe points out, did bury Greek and Gaulish couples alive in the Forum Boarium at times of crisis, apparently in conformity with instructions found in their mysterious Sybelline books; we know that at least three sacrifices of this sort were made between 228 and 113 B.C. But Livy speaks of these events as most un-Roman, and there are obvious dangers in assuming that we can understand what was going on in the far less well-documented societies that existed beyond Rome’s borders. Too much of what has been written about bog bodies takes as its starting point the assumption that the Iron Age peoples of the north were both uncivilised and unfathomably cruel.
With these warnings borne firmly in mind, let’s look more closely at the evidence for ritual and sacrifice. A good first step might be to consider the ways in which the peoples of this period thought about the dead. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that many northern tribes made distinctions between the worthy and unworthy, between enemies and friends. Mike Parker Pearson points out that the desecration of opponents who had been killed in battle seems to have been commonplace in many Iron Age societies – not least in Britain, where dismembered human remains have been found mixed with refuse. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this phenomenon, however, comes from Denmark, where in 2012 the remains of what appears to have been an entire defeated army were unearthed at Alken Enge, an important votive site in eastern Jutland known to archaeologists as “Holy Valley.” Thus far, the remains of 250 men, aged from 13 up to 45, have been recovered from one small area of a site that is known to extend across as much as 40 hectares [100 acres]. The dead men had apparently been dumped there at about the time of Christ – a period when, we know, Rome’s continued expansion to the north had displaced several Germanic peoples. Their search for new lands inevitably brought them into conflict with rival groups.
What makes the Alken Enge finds especially important is the parallels that can be drawn between the treatment of what were almost certainly the losers of a major battle and a number of the bog bodies dug up elsewhere. Forensic examination suggests that the Alken Enge dead had been left on the battlefield for around six months before their rotting remains were defleshed – the bones bear numerous cutting and scraping marks – and then conveyed some distance to a special place: a site on what was then the lobe of a lake in the Jutland boglands. Their dismembered remains were flung into the waters, along with their weapons and one of the boats that had, perhaps, brought them to the battlefield where they had met their deaths. By that point, they had already been subjected to what appears to have been ritual humiliation. Some of their bones had been hacked in half or crushed. Others showed signs of being prepared for what may have been some form of ceremony; the pelvic bones of four fighting men had been strung together on a stick.
Martin Welch believes that the treatment of the Alken Enge dead suggests gifting to the gods in the hope of creating reciprocal obligations. Other archaeologists broadly agree that the placement of many different warriors’ remains in a bog was a religious act. This interpretation suggests possible parallels with the several bogs that are known to have been used as depositories over periods of centuries. Three (perhaps four) different sets of human remains have been found at Lindow Moss, in Cheshire, placed there in the first or second centuries A.D. The two bog bodies exhumed at Windeby in Schleswig-Holstein – one a boy, the other a man – were found only 15 yards apart, but carbon dating suggests that one had been placed in the mire around 280 B.C. and the other three centuries later, in about 20 A.D. Similarly, the bog bodies known as Tollund Man and Elling Woman were found a short distance apart in the same bog near Silkeborg in Denmark. Both had died around the 4th century B.C. Both had been hanged.
There are intriguing similarities, then, between bog bodies and the finds at Alken Enge. What distinguishes between the two is the evidence of “specialness” that is so common in the most spectacular bog finds, and which in Parker Pearson’s view means that we can make out “many patterns which help to define the corpses as a group which is socially distinct from the rest of the population.” These distinctions seem to have had nothing to do with sex; the bodies that we have are almost equally divided between male and female. But age seems to have been a factor – there are almost no children, and only a few bog bodies who were aged under 20 when they died. Social status seems to have mattered, too. A handful of the bog people probably came from the lowest stratum of Iron Age society, among whom the best documented is probably Yde Girl, a Dutch find dating back the 1897; she had been garrotted, and her body was found wrapped in a poorly-made, threadbare cloak. A much larger number, though, had held high status. Lindow Man – who was in his 20s when he died, and who had met an extraordinarily violent end – wore a neatly-trimmed beard and, like Old Croghan Man, boasted well-manicured fingernails that betrayed no sign of manual work. Huldremose Woman had been interred in a Danish bog along with a bone comb and amber beads, both indicators of rank. A German body with a slit throat, known as Der Roter Franz (Red Franz) for his bog-water-dyed red hair, was found to have “rider’s facets” – protrusions on the femur caused by the increased use of thigh muscles that are typically found only in those who spend long hours on horseback. And another German find, the decapitated skull known as Osterby Man, wore his hair elaborately twisted and tied on one side of his head – a style known as a “Suebian knot” that is mentioned by Tacitus as an important status-symbol among the men of the north.
We ought to note in passing that the archaeologist Eamonn Kelly, who worked on Old Croghan Man and other Irish bog bodies, sees in these clues to high status a key for unravelling the whole mystery of why the remains were treated in the way they were. For Kelly, the Croghan torso and as many as 40 other Irish finds are proof of the existence of a form of sacred kingship in which rulers entered into ritual marriages with the earth goddess in order to guarantee future supplies of milk and cereal, and were then killed if they were deemed to have failed to protect their people. This theory comes perilously close to the discredited ideas of Margaret Murray, the early 20th century folklorist who proposed that, well into the Christian period, Irish and English kings were sacrificed by the members of an ancient fertility cult as part of a seven-year cycle of renewal. But Kelly’s ideas do include one plausible proposal: that high status bog bodies such as Old Croghan Man were dismembered and their parts buried at important points on tribal borders as a sort of protective mechanism to prevent evil from crossing those boundaries. It is not necessary to accept Kelly’s ambitious proposal that Iron Age borders map closely to the ones we know existed between medieval Irish lordships 2,000 years later to see in this last suggestion a neat solution to the perplexing discovery of severed heads, hacked up torsos, and solitary legs in several European bogs.
Stranger and more interesting than mere signs of status is the clear evidence that a significant proportion of bog bodies bore physical deformities that would have marked them out as “different” in life. Yde girl suffered from pronounced curvature of the spine, and stood no more than 4 ft 6 [1.37m], small even for those times. Kayhausen Boy had a malformed hip that would have made it impossible for him to walk without assistance; he was discovered in a Saxon bog in 1922 with his throat cut, his hands and feet still elaborately tied with a length of rope that had also been wound around his neck and then passed between his legs – so that, according to Miranda Aldhouse-Green, “any attempt to free his hands would have pulled on the bonds so that the band between his legs would tighten agonisingly on his genitals and simultaneously throttle him.” The body known as Lindow III, found in northern England, possessed vestigial extra thumbs. Zweeloo Woman, a Roman-era mummy found in Drenthe, an inland province of the Netherlands, had been a dwarf.
There is other evidence of specialness as well, although a good deal is contested. A significant proportion of bog bodies wore no clothes, and, while we know that some mires can destroy flax and linen, enough human remains have been found with clothes laid alongside them, or wearing only a single, perhaps symbolic, item, to give us pause for thought. Here again Old Croghan Man is an example; he wore nothing but a leather armlet decorated with celtic symbols. Borremose Man, a Danish find, had been placed in a bog naked but for the rope used to strangle him, which was still wrapped tight around his neck; a pair of sheepskin coats and a cap had been placed alongside him. The man found in Rendswühren Fen, in northern Germany, had been interred during the Roman period, in about 100 A.D. He had been battered to death and his penis had been severed; he was found wearing only a leather anklet. Several archaeologists, among them Aldhouse-Green, interpret actions such as these as attempts on the part of killers to strip their victims of status and render them vulnerable.
If so, they might possibly be linked to examples of bog bodies with shorn heads – Yde Girl and Huldremose Woman among them. The evidence for head-shaving is dubious; several studies suggest it is more likely to be the product of differing levels of oxygen within the waters of a bog, and in the case of Huldremose Woman, who was found not only with her hair shorn but with her right arm severed at the shoulder, there is some suspicion that these injuries were actually inflicted by the spades of the labourers who exhumed her. But we may stand on firmer ground when we turn to the contents of bog body stomachs. Their preservation offers unique insights into the victims’ last meals, information that tells us something about the time of year at which they met their deaths (most often winter, it appears) and the rituals that may have taken place as a result. A high proportion of the bodies most closely associated with ritual murder had eaten poor last meals, food that was not only low in nutritional value, but also disgusting in taste. Does this mean it was prison fare? Evidence of times of famine? Or was something altogether more elaborate involved? Lindow Man had been fed a griddle cake laced with mistletoe, the sacred plant of the druids. And while the stomach of Graubelle Man – a Danish bog body whose throat was cut from ear to ear sometime in the 3rd century B.C. – bore traces of several dozen different plants and grasses, some of them gathered from distances of up to 60 miles away, it also contained ergot. Ergot is a fungus that causes an unbearable sensation of burning – “St Anthony’s Fire” – accompanied by convulsions and hallucinations. Unfortunately, the archaeologists and scientists who examined Graubelle Man remain hopelessly divided as to whether he had sufficient ergot in him to produce clear symptoms, and – if so – whether those symptoms had caused his death (perhaps by making him appear possessed) or had actually been a part of his punishment.
Two more categories of evidence remain, and, of these, the first is the excessive violence – amounting, Aldouse-Green insists, to overkill – visited upon some bog bodies. In the case of Graubelle Man, that meant his throat had been cut so viciously that the knife had penetrated almost to the spinal column, severing the windpipe as well as both carotid arteries and both jugular veins. Several other victims had been decapitated, and some of these had been strangled first. The garrotte used to kill Worsley Man near what is now Manchester in about 120 A.D. was found still wrapped around the neck, just below the point at which his head had been removed. The skull of Dätgen Man was found in the peat, placed about 10 feet [3m] from his body. Not all these victims had been killed with cords; some had been dispatched with twists of wood that may have been thought to possess magical properties. Gallagh Man had been strangled with a willow rod, and Windeby Man with a noose made from hazel.
Perhaps the most notorious example of an “overkill” murder was the death of Lindow Man, who seems to have been killed in about 40 A.D. – around the date of the Roman invasion of Britain, and not far from the track that threaded its way across North Wales to the druidical strongholds on the island of Anglesey, a point several archaeologists have found pregnant with possibility. He died what Aldhouse-Green describes as a “triple death,” bludgeoned twice over the head with an axe (blows struck so violently that fragments of bone had penetrated his brain), then garrotted with a length of animal sinew before his throat was cut. This latter violence, combined with the pressure caused by the garrotte, would have caused “the effect of a fountain of blood” bursting from the throat to spatter victim and killers alike. Finally, Lindow Man had been kneed in the back and toppled into a bog pool, apparently while still alive, since there were traces of sphagnum moss in his lungs.
This, Aldhouse-Green concludes, was a deliberately theatrical killing (she speculates that it may even have taken place by night, with “the event lit only by torches and the light of the moon glinting coldly on the surface of the marsh.”) Not every archaeologist, it’s fair to say, shares her sense of the macabre, but she is not the only specialist to wonder about the reasons for the heightened violence of such killings. Mike Williams has theorised that ritual execution was employed to ensure that an important spectacle was burned into collective memory. For Aldhouse-Green, such events were most likely an example of “participatory violence,” in which a group took joint responsibility for the death of a chosen individual, and hoped thereby to escape a communal crisis – perhaps it was famine, perhaps disease, perhaps invasion.
The final factor that seems to make some bog bodies special is the discovery of the wooden “stakes,” “pegs” and “hurdles” that are associated with roughly one in seven finds – not to mention with the Ballachulish figure, found within a wicker lattice that appeared to cover it. These discoveries are generally held to be restraints, designed to pin bodies down in bogs as Tacitus famously noted when he observed that Iron Age tribes drowned traitors “in mirey swamps under a cover of wattled hurdles.” The reason for their use – in Mads Ravn’s view – may have been to protect against the revenge of ghosts or the undead by preventing their spirits from escaping the bogs.
Yet there remain many questions to be asked about the discovery of branches and stakes in bogs. Such finds are, to begin with, practically always associated with older bog bodies; in all, I have counted around 20 cases, dating from as early as 1770s, but only to as recently as 1960. This means that only a small handful of examples were professionally excavated by archaeologists. For the remainder, we are dependent on the accounts of antiquaries and clergymen who lacked formal training and who, in many cases, were not even present when the bodies were disinterred.
Let’s summarise the evidence from a few of these accounts. In the earliest case known to me – a discovery made at Ravnholt in Denmark in 1773 – a bog body was exhumed with its throat cut and its arms crossed behind its back as though it had once been pinioned. Contemporary sources stated that it had been covered in numerous branches, which had apparently lain crosswise on the torso. Gallagh Man, similarly, is said to have been interred with thick posts or stakes on either side of his body; Landegge Man (1861), Borromose Man (1946) and the Clongownagh Body (another male) were all criss-crossed with sticks, and a skeleton unearthed at Kühsen in Schleswig-Holstein, in 1960, had been covered by a number of alder poles, ranging from finger- to forearm-thick.
Opinion remains divided as to what these discoveries actually mean. The judge brought in to report on the body unearthed at Ravnholt assumed that the sticks found on his torso were intended to prevent the remains from floating away into the mire, and there is some evidence that he was right; a cremation urn excavated at Ruchmoor in Saxony in 1951 had also been covered with wooden poles and branches, as had the skeleton found at Kühsen nine years later, which had been respectfully buried (the remains were arranged so they lay east-west, with the head facing west, towards twilight and the setting sun). But others have seen evidence of ritual in sets of “hooks” and “pegs” that were apparently specifically designed to pinion a body. Parker Pearson suggests that Auning Mose Woman, another Danish bog body unearthed in 1886 and dating to around 0 A.D, was pegged down in order that she could be buried alive.
The problem with such theories is the ambiguity of the evidence. In the case of Windeby Man – one of only a small handful of bog bodies excavated to modern standards, and a good example of an apparently ritual death – close study of the excavation report shows that the “hurdles” that many popular accounts state were used to pin the corpse down actually consisted of one arm-thick branch found in the peat 12 inches [28cm] above the body itself, and a tangle of eight branches of varying thicknesses, apparently cut with axes and placed across the body at a wide variety of angles. The diagram drawn at the time seems to provide some evidence for the idea that the sticks were intended to “weigh down” the body in some way; the head and all four limbs were covered. But it’s hard to see in this higgledy-piggledy heap of boughs evidence for the sort of “soft cage of birchwood poles” discerned by P.V. Glob when he reviewed the case of Bunsoh Man, unearthed in Schleswig-Holstein in 1890, or the “grid of stakes” supposed to have covered Jührdenfeld Man when he was exhumed in 1934. And it’s worth bearing in mind that the two “wooden pegs” once supposed to have pinned Gallagh Man down in a bog have been reinterpreted as grave markers, that a Norwegian churchyard excavated by Michael Gebühr contained 64 medieval Christian corpses that had also been interred with staves across their bodies, that the wickerwork associated with the Ballachulish figure might as easily be the remains of a wattled hut in which the figure had once been sheltered as evidence for the ritual pinioning of a toppled goddess – and that, as C.S. Briggs points out, the physical difficulty of actually pinning a body down in the depths of a treacherous mire should not be underestimated.
When it comes to assessing the evidence for pegs and pinioning, in fact, we are forced back on records of the excavation of a single bog body dating to a much earlier period than is ideal – the remains of Queen Gunhild, the 5th century B.C. body excavated in Jutland in 1835. Contemporary reports of the discovery made by a local doctor, J.F. Christens, are quite explicit; the body was found alongside a heavy wooden stake some 20 inches [51cm] in length, which was still covered with hammer marks, and alongside several willow crooks. According to Christens, these had been “driven down tight over each kneed and elbow joint. In addition, strong branches had been fixed like clamps across the chest and lower abdomen, their ends similarly held down by wooden crooks… All of the stakes had to be removed before the body could be excavated.”
Christens’s account was not written until a year after Gunhild’s body was uncovered; he was not himself present at her disinterral, having his accounts at second hand; and he was prone to flights of fancy – in the same account he speculates that the dead woman was “probably nailed into the mud while still alive… [since] her facial expression immediately after the exhumation could almost clearly be seen as despair.” All this gives us some reason to doubt whether Queen Gunhild really was pinioned to the bottom of a bog in the manner he described. Yet in this case, some of the “pegs” associated with her burial survive [right] – and these do seem to show evidence of the sort of crooks and sharpening that might be expected if they really had been chosen to stake a body in a mire.
The uncomfortable fact remains, however, that agreeing there is evidence for ritual does not put us that much closer to understanding why bog killings took place, nor what they meant. So many questions remain. Why were so many men and women killed in so many different places in such similar ways? Extensive trading networks did exist during the Iron Age – one Irish bog mummy had lacquered his hair with ingredients imported from the Pyrenees – and so ideas may have spread. But the people who interred the bog bodies belonged to many different ethnic groups, and worshipped many different gods. Why was it so important that they sent their victims to their deaths in such dramatic ways? And why in fens and mires?
Somewhere out there, one suspects, a solution to these problems lies, still buried under yards of peat. Human remains that have been tanned brown by bog oak, leached, demineralised and squashed flat by the weight of history. But nonetheless a body that – for once – asks fewer questions than it answers.
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