Were the Mysterious Bog People Human Sacrifices?

A British archaeologist argues that the miraculously preserved bodies were left in the water as offerings to the gods.

The Tollund Man (Wikimedia )

Sometime around 60 A.D., a man was led into a marsh outside Cheshire, England to be killed. He was in his mid-twenties, stood about 5’ 7’’ tall, and had a trimmed beard, mustache, and brown hair. Except for an armband made out of fox fur, he was naked. It’s likely that he was accompanied, and restrained, by two or more individuals.

The details of his death make for grisly reading.

First, he received a blow from a blunt object to the top of his head, probably while he was seated, which fractured his skull. Then a cord was thrown around his neck. While he was being throttled, his throat was cut. Combined with the pressure from the noose, this would have caused a geyser of blood to erupt from the wound. Finally, he received a sharp kick to the small of his back, propelling him face-first into the waters of the bog, where, nearly two thousand years later, he was found by workers digging for peat in the Lindow Moss.

We know these details about the fate of the Lindow Man, as he has come to be known, because of the almost-miraculous preservative qualities of the bog where he was buried. Since the 18th century, hundreds of bodies like his have been pulled out of the marshes of Northern Europe. Their ages span thousands of years, from the Stone Age to the Second World War. Most, though, come from a relatively narrow band of time, from about 700 B.C. to 200 A.D. Many show signs of terrible trauma, including torture, mutilation, and dismemberment. Together, they are the coldest of cold cases, and the reasons for their demise constitute one of the enduring mysteries of European archaeology.

Explanations for why the bog victims were killed have included accident, punishment for crimes, execution of prisoners, and robberies gone wrong. In her new book, Bog Bodies Uncovered, Miranda Aldhouse-Green, a British archaeologist and expert on Celtic antiquity, argues that none of these causes make sense of all the available evidence. Bringing together results from forensic examination of the bodies with the testimony of classical authors and material gathered by ‘dry land’ archaeologists, she suggests that the likeliest explanation is also among the most disturbing: that they were victims of human sacrifice, and were left in the waters of the bog as an offering to the gods.

The first thing everyone remarks on when confronted with one of the bog bodies is their remarkable state of preservation. The Tollund Man, perhaps the most famous bog body, has been called the “perfect corpse,” chiefly because of the exquisite condition of his face and head. Discovered in 1950 by peat cutters in a Danish bog, he was buried naked, save for a skin cap and leather belt.  He had been hung, and the noose that was used was still around his neck. Given the violence he seemed to have suffered before death, it always comes as a surprise that his face is the picture of calm. The Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob, present on the day after he was unearthed, described him as having “a gentle expression—the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer.”

The Tollund Man’s preservation is awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t deliberate.  Unlike Egyptian mummies, the bog bodies owe their state to an accident of chemistry. The bogs in which they were buried contain little oxygen, which helps to inhibit bacterial growth. The most important ingredient for the bog bodies’ survival though comes from a plant called sphagnum. When sphagnum dies, it releases polysaccharides which block bacterial metabolisms. This helps keep organic matter like skin, wood, fur, and textiles from succumbing to decay.

Bogs cure bodies in a process akin to tanning, but while they are wonderful at preserving skin, they eat away at bones, leaving the bodies’ skeletons shrunken and sometimes, completely absent. At the same time, acids in bog water destroy DNA, making genetic studies impossible. Most bog bodies have been discovered in the process of excavating peat for use as fuel, and as a result, many have been hacked apart by spades and shovels, and more recently, by mechanical peat excavators. (The poor Grauballe Man even had his head stepped on, leaving it badly deformed). Modern forensic specialists have had to work hard to distinguish trauma inflicted on the bodies in life from the damage done to them when they were found.

On top of post-mortem trauma, the unusual preservation of the bog bodies can pose an additional challenge to investigators. When a body was found in the Lindow Moss in 1983, police at first thought it belonged to a recently murdered woman. By coincidence, it was found just a thousand feet from the cottage of a man who was suspected in his wife’s disappearance. Confronted with the body, he admitted to the crime. Only a few months later did it become apparent that the body was that of a two-thousand year old man.

But despite these mix-ups, there is a wealth of forensic data preserved in the bog bodies’ soft tissue, and it can tell us a lot about who these individuals’ were in life—their social status, medical history, and even the food they ate in their final hours. The Tollund Man’s last meal was a kind of gruel, described as ‘disgusting’ by a British archaeologist who tasted a reconstructed version for a program on the BBC. The Grauballe Man ate a porridge made out of 60 different types of plant, which contained enough ergot to put him in a coma, or at least, make him delirious. The Old Croghan Man, an aristocratic giant from Ireland, lived mostly on meat and dairy, but his final meal was buttermilk and cereal. The Lindow Man had an ‘upmarket’ meal of griddle-toasted flatbread, with a small addition of mistletoe pollen.

Many of the bog victims suffered from malnutrition. Others appear to have been better off. Some had finely manicured hands, or wore elaborate hairstyles that indicated their rank as freedmen or warriors. An unusual number of the bog bodies suffered from physical deformities. Some of these were fairly minor, like a cauliflower ear, or curved spines or diseased joints which would have made walking difficult. Other abnormalities were more pronounced. A survey of bog body research turns up a dwarf, a giant, and a man with an extra set of thumbs. Aldhouse-Green thinks this might be significant, and that “visually special people” may have been deliberately targeted for their uniqueness, and possibly, spiritual power.

One thing that the bog bodies make clear is that the mistreatment they suffered in death was as extreme as it was varied. The Haraldskaer Woman was killed with a garrote. The Yde Girl was strangled with her own girdle. The Tollund Man was hung. The Kayhausen Boy, a teenager from northern Germany, was hogtied before death. The Lindow, Grauballe and Kayhausen bodies all had their throats cut. The Windeby girl was drowned, and her arm was hacked off as well. The Borremose woman was scalped, her face crushed, and her right leg broken. The Old Croghan Man was hit with a barrage of blows, most likely from an axe, enough to sever his head and cut his body in half.

The violence inflicted on the bodies continued after death. Several of the bodies had their arms pierced, and willow branches were drawn through the wound. Others had wooden stakes driven through their knees. Aldhouse-Green writes that these restraints may have been a way of taming the dead, pinning their ghosts to the spot where they died. Several bodies also show signs of having undergone ritual humiliation. Most were buried naked, or wrapped only in a shroud. The Windeby Girl had the left side of her head shaved. The Yde Girl’s entire head was shorn, and her hair left by her side. In addition to everything else that was done to him, the Old Croghan’s nipples were sliced. This may have had special significance: According to tradition, in ancient Ireland, sucking a king’s nipples was a way of showing him submission.

The elaborate effort and preparation that went into the killing of the bog bodies suggests that these weren’t ordinary murders. Likewise, the placement in bodies the bogs suggests that they were not ordinary burials. Cremation was the most common form of internment in Iron Age northern Europe, while higher status individuals were sometimes placed in oak caskets and buried with grave goods for use in the next world. The bog bodies had neither. But does that necessarily mean that they were sacrificed?

Aldhouse-Green presents two main strands of evidence to argue that it does. One comes from classical antiquity. Several Roman historians, including Strabo, Tacitus, and Julius Caesar, described versions of human sacrifice being practiced by the peoples of northern Europe. Sometimes it was a means of telling the future, and at other times it was done as part of a cult associated with a particular god or temple.

The other strand comes from archaeology of the British Isles, where there are many examples of bodies that seem to have been buried alive, human remains used as foundation deposits for houses, and burials in which attendants were interred with their chiefs. There are even signs that bodies may, in certain places, have been pulled out of the bogs and kept on display hundreds of years after their deaths. Bogs themselves seem to have been places of special reverence. In Germany and Denmark, weapons, wagons, food, images of gods, and even whole ships were deliberately left in their waters. These were most likely as ceremonial offerings, and as Aldhouse-Green points out, in societies where slavery was common, a human being might have been worth less than a valuable sword or cauldron.

Both strands of evidence suffer from certain deficiencies. Aldhouse-Green emphasizes that the classical historians have to be treated with caution. They were, after all, writing as outsiders to the cultures they were describing, and each brought their own agenda to bear on the customs of the barbarian north. The archaeological record from Northern Europe is similarly problematic. Although it contains multiple signs of human and animal sacrifice, as well as material offerings made to the bogs, these finds give little indication—aside from a few tantalizing hints—as to the exact nature of the beliefs that motivated the ceremonies. Ultimately, the best evidence for human sacrifice comes from the bog bodies themselves, and the excessive, and clearly staged, violence used to kill them, as in the case of the Lindow Man.

Although we may never know for certain what was going through the minds of the killers, the bog bodies will still retain their fascination. I visited the Tollund Man more than twenty years ago on a childhood trip to Denmark and I still remember the vivid shock of seeing his face. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who devoted a cycle of poems to the bog bodies, wrote of being moved just by their photographs. Describing the Grauballe Man, he asked, “Who will say ‘corpse’/to his vivid cast?/Who will say ‘body’/to his opaque repose?” After thousands of years, the bog bodies are still with us, living a life they couldn’t possibly have imagined in death.

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