How we know what we know: Bog people

During his work, on August 1st 1984, the peat digger Andy Mould made a discovery in the Lindow Moss bog, which looked like a piece of wood. As he threw it to his colleague some peat fell off the item. What initially seemed like a piece of wood turned out to be a human foot.

As the machines were stopped and the site was investigated, it became clear that this foot belonged to a male body. The body showed signs of multiple injuries of which at least three must have been fatal individually. This was however not your typical crime investigation, since the body had been laying in the bog for about 2,000 years.

Bog people

Bog people like the “Lindow Man”, or called ‘Pete Marsh’ by the local press, are fascinating witnesses of the past. The oldest known bog body is the Koelbjerg woman from Denmark, who died around 8,000 BC. Many bog people have been preserved that date back to between 500 BC and 500 AD in particular, the time in which our tribes were historically active. They provide us with valuable information about those peoples.

How does it work?

Due to the climate, bog people are mainly found in northern Europe, but discoveries have also been made in other bogs, for example in Bavaria or the USA. The cold, acidic water in the bogs of northern Europe provides the bodies with an airtight seal. The lack of oxygen prevents bacteria from decomposing the body and the low temperatures restrict natural decay.

Hence the skin and other intestines are exceptionally preserved and even clothing made from leather and other organic materials can survive the centuries. Those parts of the body that contain calcium, the bones, are dissolved by the bog water’s acid. The acid also turns the skin brown, almost tanning it.

The result are very delicate bodies. If they are exposed to normal air, they will immediately start to decompose. Many famous finds have therefore been lost forever and only documented in notes and reports. At the time of the discoveries, the technique to preserve the bodies wasn’t known. Until the 20th century, bog people were also processed into a powder called “Mumia”, which was held in high esteem in medical circles.

What the bodies tell us:

A lot of information about Celtic and Germanic tribes can be traced back through these finds. We get to know clothing and hair styles and the analysis of stomach contents tells us more about the diets of the time. The attrition of teeth and other dental damage also tells about the eating habits. Bog people additionally tell us about their living conditions, illnesses and causes of death.

The Lindow Man’s last meal for example consisted of wheat and buttermilk, but in the months leading up to his death, he must have consumed meat regularly. His hands were soft and showed hardly any signs of calluses. So it must have been a high-ranking person, since he didn’t make his livelihood from manual labor.

In his time, England was inhabited by Celtic tribes and his blood group, zero, also indicates that he belonged to that tribe. The multiple fatal wounds suggest a ritual murder, but it remains unclear, whether this was a ritual form of a punishment or a sacrifice to a god. Indeed, it could have also been both, if a criminal was sacrificed.

Sacrificial death

Other bog people have been identified as high-ranking individuals, too, which most likely have been sacrificed in a rite to appease the gods. Finds from Ireland, like the Old-Croghan Man and the Clonycavan Man suggest that kings have been buried on important borders, probably to underline their claim on the territory.

Other finds have been interpreted by scientists as ritual marriages of the king and the godly mother Earth. So the Lindow Man may have also been a druid. Ground surveys suggest that his death must have occurred at a time of deteriorating climate. The average temperature decreased by about one degree centigrade, once dry ground then became marshy and rainfall was likely to have negatively impacted harvests and livestock to a great extent.

In light of such a famine, it seems possible that the death of this man should have caused better harvests. The different ways in which the man was killed also suggest that a human sacrifice was made to multiple gods and hence the man was dealt multiple fatal wounds.

Punishment

The Roman writer Tacitus reports in his Germania (12-1): “Cowards, the war-shy and the physically lewd are to be dumped in mud and bogs, while wickerwork should be thrown on top.” And indeed, finds from Denmark and northern Germany do support this line of thought: The ‘Girl of Windby’ was blindfolded and part of her hair was missing. Wickerwork was found close to the body and her hand displayed an obscene gesture.

But what initially seemed to match the Teutons’ punishment for adultery as described by Tacitus, turned out to be a mistake. The blindfold wasn’t tight enough, so it’s more likely this was a hair-band that had simply moved. Injuries to the body later turned out to be damage from recovering the body and effects from the bog environment that occurred a long time after death. The shaven hair also seems to have been decomposed after death due to the influx of oxygen and the hand was also only deformed during the recovery. A genetic examination furthermore discovered that the petite body was that of a 16-year old boy and not that of a 14-year old girl as initially thought.

Funeral

Some of the bodies found in “Germania liber”, the free, non-Roman occupied Germania, did however correspond to the description of Tacitus. A few bog people, who were buried under wickerwork and stones have been found. Other bodies have been subject to brute force, as indicated by skull damage. Some people were even abused after their death. This can, for example, be seen from wounds that show no heavy bleeding.

Despite this, they were buried with care, for example by placing them on birch twigs and giving them funerary goods for their way into the next world. Nets, ropes around the neck or body and beheadings can however also be seen as a way in which the Teutons tried to prevent the deceased from returning to life in another world.

Especially for the study of non-literate cultures like the Teutons or Gauls, bog people serve as an important source of information. The increasing use of heavy machinery in peat mining does however make it less and less likely that bog people are even found at all. Like the peat around them, they are ploughed and turned into soil for flowers.

Photo: Commander-pirx, Wikipedia

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