The bodies in the bogs

Bog pool beneath Errigal Mountain, County Donegal, Ireland. Photo by Gareth McCormack.

Bog pool beneath Errigal Mountain, County Donegal, Ireland. Photo by Gareth McCormack, reproduced with permission. Clicking the link takes you to Gareth’s site and more outstanding landscape photography.

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.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, whose accounts of the pagan north around 0 A.D. form one of the few scraps of written evidence that may help to explain the nature of bog body finds.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, whose accounts of the pagan north around 0 A.D. include some of the few scraps of written evidence that may help to explain the nature of bog body finds.

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.

Dramatic Llyn Fawr – seen here in 1830 – sits beneath a 2,000 foot escarpment at the head of a South Wales valley. Draining the lake revealed a treasure trove of votive offerings deposited there during the Bronze Age.

Dramatic Llyn Fawr – seen here in 1830 – huddles beneath a 2,000 foot escarpment at the head of a South Wales valley. Draining the lake revealed a treasure trove of votive offerings deposited there during the Bronze Age.

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.

One of the skeletons excavated at Cladh Hallan in the Hebrides. The body had been preserved in peat and kept above ground for years before being buried. The details are baffling; the head is male and has been placed on a female body. The woman's hands each contain an incisor removed from the man's skull.

One of the skeletons excavated at Cladh Hallan in the Hebrides. The body had been kept above ground for centuries before being buried; the details of the finds are baffling.

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.

Haunted landscape: morning mist rises over a northern mire.

Haunted landscape: morning mist rises over a northern mire.

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.”

The Ballachulish figure – a bog or crossing guardian, dug from a peat grave in the highlands of Scotland in 1881. This image shows her as she is today, more than a century after the crude methods of preservation then available permitted her to dry out. See below right for an image of the goddess as she originally appeared.

The Ballachulish figure – a bog or crossing guardian, dug from a peat grave in the highlands of Scotland in November 1880. This image shows her as she is today, more than a century after the crude methods of preservation then available permitted her to dry out. See the gallery below for an image of the goddess as she originally appeared when found.

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.

This sketch by Vincent Van Gogh, dating to October 1883, shows Dutch women working at peat-cutting in the traditional labour-intensive way. Bodies unearthed by hand were much more likely to survive intact than those exhumed by the modern, heavily-mechanised peat extraction industry.

This sketch by Vincent Van Gogh, dating to October 1883, shows Dutch women working at peat-cutting in the traditional labour-intensive way. Bodies unearthed by hand were much more likely to survive intact than those exhumed by the modern, heavily-mechanised peat extraction industry.

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.

A smashed keg of bog butter, found in an Irish bog and dating to around 310 A.D. Hundreds of bog butter finds have been made; archaeologists differ as to whether Iron Age peoples used bogs as primitive refrigerators or whether the butter was intended as offerings.

A smashed keg of bog butter, found in an Irish bog and dating to around 310 A.D. Hundreds of bog butter finds have been made; archaeologists differ as to whether Iron Age peoples used bogs as primitive refrigerators or whether the deposits of butter were intended as offerings.

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.

The pelvic bones of four dismembered warriors, threaded on a stick: one of the spectacular finds made at Alken Enge.

The pelvic bones of four dismembered warriors, threaded on a stick: one of the spectacular finds made at Alken Enge.

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.

The remarkably-preserved face of Tollund Man, who was hanged in a Danish bog around 350 B.C. and found naked but for a leather belt and cap. He was apparently a human sacrifice whose remains were treated with care and respect after his death.

The remarkably-preserved face of Tollund Man, who was hanged in a Danish bog around 350 B.C. and found naked but for a leather belt and cap. He was apparently a human sacrifice whose remains were treated with care and respect after his death.

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.

The head of Osterby Man, showing the Suebian Knot tied into his hair – a sign of his high status.

The head of Osterby Man, showing the Suebian Knot tied into his hair – a sign of his high status.

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.

The distribution of bog body finds. From Menotti.

The distribution of bog body finds. From Menotti.

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.

A reconstruction of the death of Tollund Man, from Museum Silkeborg in Denmark.

A reconstruction of the death of Tollund Man, from Museum Silkeborg in Denmark.

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.

Reconstruction of the death of Lindow Man by archaeological illustrator Aoife Patterson.

Reconstruction of the death of Lindow Man by archaeological illustrator Aoife Patterson.

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.

The oldest known photograph of a bog body in situ – this one excavated at Fattiggårdens Mose, in Denmark, in 1898.

The oldest known photograph of a bog body in situ – this one excavated at Fattiggårdens Mose, in Denmark, in 1898.

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.

The body of "Queen Gunhild" – more properly known today as Haraldskær Woman – was found in 1835 and, thanks to careful treatment and storage, is exceptionally well preserved today.

The body of “Queen Gunhild” – more properly known today as Haraldskær Woman – was found in 1835 and, thanks to careful treatment and storage, is exceptionally well preserved today.

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.

A top-down view of the branches found on top of the Windeby II bog body. From Schlabow et al, Zwei Moorleichenfunde aus dem Domlandsmoor (1958).

A top-down view of the tangle of branches found on top of the Windeby II bog body. From Schlabow et al, Zwei Moorleichenfunde aus dem Domlandsmoor (1958).

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.”

Examples of the wooden "pegs" associated with the body known as Queen Gunhild, and thought to have been used to stake her body to the bottom of a bog.

Examples of the wooden “pegs” associated with the body known as Queen Gunhild, and thought to have been used to stake her body to the bottom of a bog.

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.

Sources

Robert Ackerman. “Frazer on myth and ritual.” Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975); Miranda Aldhouse-Green. Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015; Anon. “Violent aftermath for the warriors at Alken Enge.” Phys.org, accessed 17 July 2016; BBC. “4,000 Year Old Cold Case: the Body in the Bog.” Dailymotion, accessed 30 July 2016; D.A. Binchy. “The saga of Fergus Mac Léti.” Ériu 16 (1952); C.S. Briggs. “Did they fall or were they pushed?” In R.C. Turner and R.G. Scaife [ eds.], Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives. London: British Museum Press, 1995; Robert Christison. “On an ancient wooden image, found in November last at Ballachulish peat-moss.” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 15 (1880-1); Bryony Coles. “Anthropomorphic wooden figures from Britain and Ireland.” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56 (1990); G.F. Dalton. “The ritual killing of the Irish kings.” Folklore 81 (1970); Gary Forsythe. A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; Heather Gill-Robinson. The Iron Age Bog Bodies of the Archaeologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manitoba, 2005P.V. Glob. The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved. London: Faber, 1998; Miranda Green. “Humans as ritual victims in the later prehistory of Western Europe.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 17 (1998); Timothy Insoll [ed.] The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011; Eamonn P. Kelly. “Secrets of the bog bodies: the enigma of the Iron Age explained.” Archaeology Ireland 20 (2006); Eamonn P. Kelly. “The cruel goddess: death on the boundary.” In Matthew Jebb & Colm Crowley [eds], Secrets of the Irish Landscape. Cork University Press, 2013; Eamonn P. Kelly. “An archaeological interpretation of Irish Iron Age bog bodies.” In Sara Ralph [ed.] The Archaeology of Violence: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Albany: SUNY Press, 2013; Jarrett A. Lobell and Samir S. Patel. “Bog bodies rediscovered.”  Archaeology 63 (2010); Francesco Menotti. Wetland Archaeology and Beyond: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012;  Elisabeth Munksgaard. “Bog bodies – a brief survey of interpretations.” Journal of Danish Archaeology 3 (1984)Mike Parker Pearson. “Lindow Man and the Danish connection: further light on the mystery of the bogman.” Anthropology Today 2 (1986); Raghnall Ó Floinn. “Irish bog bodies.” Archaeology Ireland 2 (1988);  Morten Ravn. “Burials in bogs: Bronze and Early Iron Age bog bodies from Denmark. Acta Archaeologica 81 (2010); Peter Rowley-Conwy. From Genesis to Prehistory: The Archaeological Three Age System and its Contested Reception in Denmark, Britain, and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007; Karin Sanders. “A portal through time: Queen Gunhild.” Scandinavian Studies 81 (2009); Karin Sanders. Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012; Edward Cletus Sellner. The Double: Male Eros, Friendship and Mentoring – From Gilgamesh to Kerouac.  Maple Shade [NJ]: Lethe Press, 2013; L.M. Stead et al, Lindow Man: the Body in the Bog. London: British Museum Press, 1986; R.C. Turner, M. Rhodes and J.P. Wild. “The Roman body found on Grewlthorpe Moor in 1850: a reappraisal.” Britannia 22 (1991); Wijnand A.B. Van Der Sanden. “Bog bodies: underwater burials, sacrifices and executions.” In Franceso Menotti and Aidan O’Sullivan [eds.] The Oxford Handbook of Wetland Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013;  Wijnand A.B. Van Der Sanden and Sabine Eisenbeiss. “Imaginary people: Alfred Dieck and the bog bodies of Northern Europe.” Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 36 (2006); Mike Williams. “Tales from the dead. Remembering the bog bodies in the Iron Age of North-Western Europe.” In Howard Williams, [ed.] Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death & Memory in Past Societies. New York: Kluwer Academic, 2003.

 

40 thoughts on “The bodies in the bogs

  1. the king done fucked up to end up in the drink! bring back mandatory death sentences for failed public leaders! (jesus christ that’s a long read, you should have put a ‘get a tay’ warning!!!!)

    • This is a fascinating topic – and also one that tells us a great deal about the frankly tenuous nature of many academic attempts to interpret bog body evidence.

      The idea has come into popular usage via the works of the Irish archaeologist Eamonn Kelly, who has written about Old Croghan Man in several academic papers. According to Kelly, suckling at the nipples of old Irish kings was a symbol of subservience throughout this period, so partially severing them was probably a symbol of the revocation of kingly status: OCM was a failed king, or perhaps a failed pretender to some “throne.” This odd – indeed bizarre – detail has passed from his works into something approximating popular acceptance. For example, it has appeared in National Geographic (which notes that “in ancient Ireland a king’s subjects ritually demonstrated their submission by sucking on the ruler’s nipples”), and it featured as a humorous item on the British quiz programme QI – which (thanks to its reputation as an “intellectual” show) has developed an unfortunate power to lend credence to all sorts of dodgy historical tittle-tattle. One of the more elaborate accounts of the practice appears on a blog titled Celteros, which, in a post called Sughaim Sine: Homosocial Nipple Sucking In Ancient Pagan Ireland, adds extensive homoerotic overtones: “This typically male act stood for many things in the pagan culture of the times. In one aspect, it was used as a way to pledge loyalty, devotion and submission for a king. Among common men, it was an expression of friendship, greeting, reconciliation, affection, fealty, protection and not surprisingly, as some sources suggest, sexual stimulation and pleasure.”

      How well founded is this unusual idea? The answer, unfortunately, is “not very.” It can be traced back to two old sources, the first of which is the Confessio (“Confession”) of St Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint – a manuscript that describes the saint’s efforts to convert the pagan Irish in the middle of the fifth century. This comes to us from an Irish MS dating to around 800 (now in the library of Trinity College Dublin); it also exists in several later MSS. The authorship of the Confessio remains a subject of debate, but a number of authorities accept is as genuine – that is, that it is the work of St Patrick himself.

      What does Patrick have to say about nipples, then? The relevant passage can be found in Chapter 18 (my italics:)

      And on the same day that I arrived, the ship was setting out from the place, and I said that I had the wherewithal to sail with them; and the steersman was displeased and replied in anger, sharply: ‘By no means attempt to go with us.’ Hearing this I left them to go to the hut where I was staying, and on the way I began to pray, and before the prayer was finished I heard one of them shouting loudly after me: ‘Come quickly because the men are calling you.’ And immediately I went back to them and they started to say to me: ‘Come, because we are admitting you out of good faith; make friendship with us in any way you wish.’ (And so, on that day, I refused to suck the breasts of these men from fear of God, but nevertheless I had hopes that they would come to faith in Jesus Christ, because they were barbarians.) And for this I continued with them, and forthwith we put to sea.

      It’s easy to see how this can be interpreted as a mention of an Irish pagan custom that existed in the fifth century – one that had some sort of religious or ritual overtones that went beyond the mere “friendship” mentioned, since Patrick feared the wrath of God if he performed it. But it seems very unsafe to assume that a custom that may have existed in the fifth century originated more than 700 years earlier, at the time of Old Croghan Man – and I stress “may,” because the Confessio is full of disparaging, and perhaps exaggerated, references to pagan customs – which of course the saint is anxious to show as inferior to a Christian way of life. Even if we concede that Patrick was describing a real custom, moreover, I think it is frankly dangerous to extrapolate from this brief passage any suggestion that nipple-suckling was a practice specific to pagan kings – which the boatmen he is writing about certainly weren’t.

      The second source that can be interpreted as suggesting the practice does seem to bridge this gap, but it is just as hard to interpret. This is The Saga of Fergus Mac Léti, which purports to be an Irish saga written in the mid-8th century A.D. about a hero who was King of Ulster, in the northern part of Ireland – though it’s also been argued it was invented three hundred years later by a scholar in a law school. Fergus appears on old Irish king lists as a monarch who appears to have reigned at some point in the second century A.D., before the conversion of Ireland to Christianity – though these lists were drawn up centuries later and few specialists would state unequivocally that he was a real historical personage.

      In the translation of the saga made by D.A. Binchy (which I’ve added to the sources for the essay), Fergus meets three dwarfs – and chapter 5 of the saga observes of one of them:

      “This was the dwarf who sucked his, Fergus’s, breasts and caught hold of his cheek as a token of asking quarter from him. ‘Why dost thou do that?’ said Fergus. ‘That,’ said the dwarf, is [one of the rules of] fair combat with us.’ Hence comes today [the custom of] taking hold of men’s breasts and cheeks for the purpose of seeking quarter and making appeal [?] to their honour, etc.”

      It’s easy to see how this has been appropriated as a description of an ancient Irish custom, and how writers such as Kelly came to associate it with kingship (after all, Fergus was supposedly a king.) Again, however, close reading of the text raises concerns. The saga itself is humorous, and this is only one of several ribald elements perhaps calculated to amuse a knowing audience – the reference here to “cheeks” could certainly apply as easily to buttocks as to the face, for instance. Moreover, as written, it’s clear the custom of suckling at the breast of a superior opponent is something practised by the dwarfs, not by Fergus – who seems not to have come across the practice before this encounter. Binchy’s gloss on the passage observes that “the precise meaning … in the present context remains somewhat obscure.”

      All in all, then, there is some evidence that the custom of sucking at a man’s breast was a gesture of submission in pagan Ireland, and some that it may have been associated specifically with kingship. As such, the mutilation of Old Croghan Man’s nipples may be a reflection of that custom. To believe that, however, we have to believe that the idea had persisted for at least 700-900 years before it was recorded – and that two rather obscure passages, in texts written for quite different purposes, are accurate descriptions of an historic practice.

      Incidentally, I found a second Irish saint’s tale focused on men’s breasts. From The Double-Male Eros: Friendship and Mentoring from Gilgamesh to Kerouac, by Sellner:

      Sellner extract

      How do we read this passage? Surely not as indicating that some Irish holy men believed that they were genuinely capable of suckling children.

  2. That was fascinating. I’m intrigued but at the same time frustrated with bog mummies. It just annoys me not knowing. But it’s just so interesting too.

  3. OK, so if Eamonn Kelly is possibly wrong about OCM’s nipples, what sort of evidence is there that he is right about bog bodies being buried along important boundaries?

    • According to Kelly, he has been able to establish links between known Irish boundaries and no fewer than 40 bog bodies.

      There are two key problems with this idea, and they will be familiar to anyone who’s looked sceptically at the popular 1970s enthusiasm for “ley lines”. This latter is the idea that it is possible to link ancient sites on a map by drawing straight lines between them, revealing – at least so far as some enthusiasts are concerned – traces of an ancient grid of mystic energy dating at least as far back as the bog body period.

      The trouble with the ley line theory is that there are so many sites that can possibly be linked together (enthusiasts often use known prehistoric sites, the sites of churches – on the grounds that these were often built on top of sites used by earlier religions – hills, etc etc) that it becomes a statistical certainty that it will be possible to link some along straight lines. You can prove this by generating a “map” of 100 or 150 random points and taking up a ruler; remember that, for ley theorists, a line linking as few as three points is often held valid. Then there’s the problem of how accurate a correlation has to be in order to be accepted as a ley. Using a thick pencil on a small scale map often means linking sites that can be out of alignment by anything from a few feet to a few hundred yards in reality. And I saw some statistical studies once that suggested that a six-foot leeway was enough to double the chances of a ley “existing”.

      Much the same objections apply to Kelly’s theory. He’s paralleled the ley hunters’ tendency to include a large number of different sorts of marker – in his case he included the boundaries between old Irish baronies and counties, but also parish boundaries. There are several thousand of parishes in Ireland, so Kelly is creating plenty of possible correlations by allowing them. And doing this seems unfair, since, in his own work, he stipulates that Iron Age Ireland consisted of around 150 different polities – it certainly wasn’t the case that every modern Irish parish can be mapped back to an Iron Age Irish statelet.

      Since, so far as I know, anyway, Kelly has not published a map showing the correlations he claims to have discovered, it’s hard to take this further without being unfair. But I’d be very surprised to find that he hasn’t also been pretty generous in determining what sort of parameters count when it comes to saying that a bog body find was “on” an ancient boundary. If he’s allowing leeway of a couple of hundred yards, say, he’ll be playing havoc with his own statistics.

      Finally, we have to reiterate the obvious point: we have no idea what boundaries, if any, existed in Iron Age Ireland. Lots of map historians concede that the ancients didn’t have the same intricate concern with exact borders that we have today – how could they, if they didn’t have precisely plotted maps? Unless you’re the sort of ley hunter who believes that the ancients were technologically at least as advanced as we are, but that their amazing technologies have been lost, it’s more sensible to assume that boundaries either followed natural features such as rivers, or were of the order of “from that hill to that village” – which is way too vague, in my view, to hazard the sort of precise connections that the Kelly theory implies.

      All of that said, the idea that the burial of dismembered body parts may have been associated with the creation of some sort of sacred or protective space does not seem completely ridiculous to me.

  4. Mike, another truly fascinating and well-written article! I eagerly look forward to each new piece you publish. Keep up the great work.

  5. I always tell people I want to be mummified when I die, albeit probably more like one of the Andean mummies but bog mummies are pretty cool too.😀

  6. I’m not sure the theory of “never did any manual labour” is correct. The bog cures the skin as leather. Which means it COULD quite possibly cure the hands and fingers, making them look soft and unused, taking away the calluses and other markings.

  7. Other than (possibly) ergot and mistletoe, have the stomach contents of these bodies been examined in relation to possible narcotic or entheogenic effects?

    • A good question – the answer to which, so far as I know, is that nothing of this sort has been found to date.

      In addition to that quantity of ergot, Grauballe Man’s last meal consisted of a porridge of corn, herbs and grasses. Lindow Man’s – the one laced with mistletoe pollen – was subjected to microscopic examination, and it was discovered that it was “little more than a snack composed of chaff and bran.” Electron spin resonance was used to establish details of the maximum cooking temperature of the meal, how long it was cooked for and the cooking method used. From this, it was deduced that Lindow man had eaten a griddle cake, cooked on a flat surface at 200 degrees centigrade for about half an hour – during which time the meal had burnt.

      The stomach of Tollund Man was found to contain “no traces of meat, fish or fresh fruit among the contents, only grain and seeds.” According to the Silkeborg Museum’s site, the botanist “found many traces of barley, flaxseed, false flax and knotgrass. The last two grow in the wild, whereas barley and flaxseed were cultivated in fields. Traces of other seeds were also found in the contents – some of them had probably been gathered, whereas others may have been mixed in by coincidence. The specialist was able to recognize approximately 40 different kinds of seeds.” The image shows the museum’s reconstruction of TM”s final meal:

      As touched on in my essay, Old Croghan Man’s last meal (analysed from the contents in his stomach) consisted of cereals and milk. Analysis of his nails showed he had enjoyed a meat rich diet for at least the four months before his death; his stature suggests much longer than that.

      An analysis of the stomach contents of Dätgen Man was done in 1967. This revealed a diet of wheat, millet chaff and weed seeds, including corn spurry (Spergula arvensis), persicaria (Polygonum lapathifolium) and fat hen (Chenopodium album) – see K.W. Struve, “Die Moorleiche von Diitgen,” in Offa 24 (1967). Huldremose woman’s “enjoyed” a last meal of wheat, rye corn spurry and chaff – see R.C. Turner and R.G. Scaife [eds], Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives. British Museum Press, 1995.

      The presence of sphagnum moss, the bog preservative, in some victim’s stomachs may indicate they were placed in the mires still alive, to be drowned, or may suggest these last meals were accompanied by draughts of bog water – see Arthur C. Aufderheide, The Scientific Study of Mummies (Cambridge: CUP, 2003 p.176).

      Raynor Ganan has published a recipe for reconstructing Tollund Man’s last meal here, if any readers of this blog are inspired to try it.

      He notes: “While I have yet to make this gruel on my own, in the golden age of British archaeology television (the 1950s), two prominent archeologists did. On the show “Buried Treasure,” Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Dr. Glyn Daniel tasted our bogman’s last supper. Sadly, this important footage doesn’t seem to be online, but in her book Wet Site Archaeology Barbara Purdy reports that the dish was rather oily and had a greyish-purple color, with flecks of orange and black throughout. Neither gentleman could stomach the porridge leading both to chase it with a rich Danish brandy from a cow-horn. The wry Mortimer commented to his companion that with porridge like that, perhaps the bogman had thrown himself into the bog.”

  8. Yawn! Going to hit the sack and dream of bog bodies. I just know it. Choose your reading material wisely peeps, because nine times out of ten it revisits you in the wee hours…

    • Yes, they often are found – and yes, there is sometimes evidence of ritual.

      Most of the finds, for example, are the remains of domestic rather than wild animals – which ought to have been less likely to wander unknowingly into bogs. They are typically large animals (more horses and cattle than dogs and cats). The majority of these remains bear traces of fire damage, indicating that they may have been slaughtered and eaten in feasts. But there are also examples of animals that appear to have been sacrificed rather than eaten – examples include the skeletons of cattle, dating all the way back to 3,500 B.C., found in Scandinavian bogs. A couple of sources with further details are Christina Fredengren & Camilla Löfqvist, “Food for Thor: the deposition of human and animal remains in a Swedish wetland”, Journal of Wetland Archaeology 15 (2015) and Nerissa Russell, Social Zooarchaeology: Human and Animal Remains in Prehistory, p.109ff.

  9. I’ve been fascinated by the bog people since I read Glob’s book back 40+ years ago. Even named a pet rat Yda Girl after the one of them.

  10. Pingback: The God of Broken Things – Cae Hawksmoor

  11. Really enjoyed this – might be a candidate for the yearly creepy story I tell my sister on Halloween – a tradition I started with another post of yours about the three British soldiers who may have traveled in time.🙂

    Can’t wait to read more from you!

    • Good luck, but didn’t you tell me your last effort frightened her to tears? I hope she’s toughened up a little bit since then!

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