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Three Mysterious European Bog Body Murders

Three Mysterious European Bog Body Murders

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Over the past centuries, the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children have been unearthed during peat-cutting activities in northwestern Europe. The "bog bodies" were pulled from their soggy graves, most dating to the Iron Age, between 800 BC and 200 AD. No one knows for sure who these people were and how they ended up in the bogs, but they weren’t just unlucky people who fell in after losing their way. This is why these unfortunate people’s demise are called bog body murders. Forensic evidence shows many of the victims display obvious signs of violent deaths. Murder and sacrifice were the believed fates of these unfortunate souls. But who killed them, and why? These are the ultimate cold cases. After thousands of years, can we discover what really happened? The bog body murders are a fascinating window into murder in ancient times . . .

Bog Body Murders #1: Bocksten Man: Bludgeoned To Death

Around 700 years ago, a young man was struck three times on the head, then tossed into a peat bog and impaled with three wooden poles to prevent his body rising to the surface. What is the story behind the grisly ending to this young man’s life, and why were his killers so determined to keep his body from ever surfacing? To give you a hint, this cases is the most famous bog body murders of all time.

The body of the “Bocksten Man” was discovered in a peat bog in Bocksten in Sweden in 1936 AD. Astonishingly, his clothing, as well as his long, curly hair, were well-preserved due to the waterlogged condition of the bog. 

The unfortunate Bocksten Man, the most famous of all bog body murders, was brutally killed. (CC BY 2.0)

The unfortunate Bocksten Man, the most famous of all bog body murders, was brutally killed. (CC BY 2.0)

The Discovery Of The Bocksten Man

Due to the high level of preservation, the Bocksten Man was initially believed that the remains belonged to a recent murder victim and the local police were contacted. However, after examining his clothing and other features, they soon realized that the body was centuries old.

Bocksten Man was taken to the Varberg Museum where studies revealed that he had lived in the 14th century AD. By studying his teeth and body, it was found that he was likely between 25 and 35 years old at the time of his death.

The Halland Museum of Cultural History, the current home of the Bocksten Man, is situated in this building in the Varberg Fortress, Sweden. (Public Domain)

The Halland Museum of Cultural History, the current home of the Bocksten Man, is situated in this building in the Varberg Fortress, Sweden. (Public Domain)

What The Bocksten Man Was Wearing When He Was Killed

The Bocksten Man’s clothing was considered to be one of the best preserved of its kind from the Medieval period in Europe. Bocksten Man’s clothing consisted of a tunic/cotte, a mantle/cloak, a hood, woolen hose, and leather shoes. In addition, he also had two leather belts and two knives on him. This indicated that he had belonged to the upper classes of Medieval society and allowed researchers to piece together possible reasons for his murder.

Another image of the Bocksten Man who was murdered so long ago and who is the most famous of all bog body murders. (CC BY 2.0)

Another image of the Bocksten Man who was murdered so long ago and who is the most famous of all bog body murders. (CC BY 2.0)

Three blows from a blunt weapon, likely a pole or a hammer, damaged his skull. He took one hit on the lower jaw, another near the right ear, and the last, farther back on his head. These injuries caused his death.

But why was he killed?

Bog Body Murders: Killed For Religion, Politics, Or Ambition?

Even in 1936 AD, when the bog body was found, apparently local legend still spoke of a man who had been recruiting soldiers in the area long before. Not pleased by this, peasants killed him and buried him in the bog. Then it was said that the man returned from the dead and was haunting the townsfolk. To stop this, poles were rammed through his body, pinning him in place; whereupon the haunting stopped.

Based on his rich hood and cloak, it’s also possible that he had been a travelling tax collector (not often a welcomed individual), which caused him to be murdered and discarded quietly.

The other theory is that Bocksten Man may have been a victim of dangerous politics. Was he actually Simon Gudmundi, dean of the Diocese of Linköping, who worked with a group that tried to get Catherine of Vadstena made a saint? Records say that Gudmundi visited the area (where one of Catherine’s miracles was said to have taken place), and it’s speculated he was killed on the order of a competitor so they themselves could assume the post of dean of the Diocese.

Bocksten Man’s thick, curly locks and personal possessions make him a relatable and sympathetic figure: it’s easier to connect with his humanity and wonder about his awful fate. Unfortunately, his horrible tale is not a rare one . . .

Bog Body Murders #2: Grauballe Man: Victim Of Ritual Sacrifice?

Of the many ancient remains found preserved in bogs and marshes, one of the more puzzling is the “Grauballe Man.” Discovered in a peat bog in Jutland, Denmark in 1952 AD, experts believe that the man had his throat slit sometime in the third century BC. His body was then dumped in a bog.

Grauballe Man was discovered on April 26, 1952 AD, by a team of Danish peat cutters in the bog of Nebelgard Fen, near the village of Grauballe. He was naked and had a terrible grimace on his face. Initially, townsfolk believed it to be the body of a man known as the Red Christian, another local peat cutter known for his drinking. Red went missing around 1887 AD and is thought to have drunkenly stumbled into a bog and drowned. This not-uncommon fate was the story behind two bodies pulled out of English bogs in Cheshire.

Still, the townspeople figured they ought to be sure, so they called a local amateur archaeologist, Ulrik Balsev, as well as the village doctor. Unable to determine the identity of the man or the cause of death, the locals contacted scientists at the Aarhus Museum of Prehistory. Professor Peter Glob came by the next morning and oversaw a team of peat cutters as they removed a large block of peat containing the body.

Once at the museum, Glob’s team performed a complete examination of the man. He was thought to have been around 30 years old at the time of death. He was measured at five feet, seven inches (1.7 meters) tall. He had stubble on his chin, and the hair still clinging to his head was about two inches (5 cm) long. But, despite its red appearance, and much like Bocksten Man and many other bog bodies, the victim was probably not a redhead in life: the color was most likely the result of being submerged in the bog.

 The well-preserved hand of Grauballe Man a bog body murder from Denmark. (Public Domain)

The well-preserved hand of Grauballe Man a bog body murder from Denmark. (Public Domain)

To everyone’s surprise, radiocarbon dating placed Grauballe Man in the late Iron Age, probably around 310 BC to 55 BC. The man’s hands were smooth and seemingly unaccustomed to manual labor. In fact, so preserved were his fingers, that scientists were able to take his fingerprints! His last meal was corn porridge, including seeds, herbs, and springtime grasses. Additionally—and importantly—his stomach showed traces of poisonous fungi called fungi ergot.

Most striking of all was the forensic analysis. His throat had clearly been cut from ear to ear in such a way that it was impossible to have been suicide. He was also missing four lumbar vertebrae. At first, scientists thought he had been beaten up, as his skull was fractured, and his right tibia broken. However, these injuries were determined to have happened after death; perhaps by pressure from the bog, or perhaps accidentally by the locals who found him.

 The body of the Grauballe Man, another famous bog body murder, when he was found. (Public domain)

The body of the Grauballe Man, another famous bog body murder, when he was found. (Public domain)

Theories abound as to what caused Grauballe Man’s death. No items were found with him, nor any articles of clothing. It is entirely possible that the man was originally wearing clothes and that they dissolved in the watery bog over time.

One theory argues that the man was a criminal. According to the contemporary Roman historian Tacitus, the tribes of the north were very strict and routinely put law violators to death. The northern tribes also engaged in frequent warfare amongst themselves, leading to another theory that Grauballe Man was a prisoner of war (such men were also routinely killed).

But why then was this man in the bog and not disposed of with the other criminals? A different theory may have an answer for this. Some experts believe that Grauballe Man was a sacrifice. His hands are smooth, indicating that he never did hard, physical work. Perhaps he had been destined for holy purposes. Tacitus also describes the deep connections the northern Europeans felt for mother earth: “during spring she visits these tribes and upon departing, a selection of people are sacrificed.”

There is another theory that is based on the ergot fungus found in his stomach. Ergot is probably best known as the fungus from which LSD was first synthesized. However, it is also the fungus consumed by the ancient Greeks in their Eleusinian Mystery rituals and possibly (accidently) consumed by those accused in the Salem witch trials.

 Bog body murders: Grauballe Man at Moesgaard-Museum, Denmark ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Bog body murders: Grauballe Man at Moesgaard-Museum, Denmark ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Grauballe Man could have been too sick to work but he might have been used by a holy order to make predictions similar to the Oracle of Delphi. He then would have been slain and deposited in the bog in reverence. It could also be that the consumption of ergot and resulting ergotism made him a village pariah; one who was possessed by an evil spirit and who brought about nothing but woe and misfortune. In such a case, he would have been killed in order to save the townsfolk from his “evil influence,” and then deposited in the bog to keep him far away from the village.

We will probably never know the truth for certain.

Bog Body Murders #3: Clonycavan Man: A Distinguished Man

The peat bogs of Ireland revealed another dark mystery in 2003 AD: Clonycavan Man. This body, churned up by a peat-harvesting machine, stunned people with his elaborate and distinguished appearance. But it was the brutality he had evidently endured before his death that showed his murderers were unseating a king.

  Bog body Clonycavan Man at National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, around 4th or 3rd century BC.( CC BY SA 2.0 )

 Bog body Clonycavan Man at National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, around 4th or 3rd century BC.( CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Clonycavan Man was found in Clonycavan, County Meath in Ireland. The remains, which have been dated to 2,300 years ago, consisted of a head, neck, arms, torso, and upper abdomen. It is likely that the peat harvesting machine was responsible for severing his lower body and his hands. It is estimated that he was between the age of 24 and 40 when he died. His nose was squashed, and his teeth crooked. The pores of his skin were still visible, and it has been concluded that his diet consisted mostly of fruits and vegetables.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Clonycavan Man was his hair. On his face he wore a goatee and a moustache, while on his head was a very distinguished hairstyle. The front of his hair was shaven, giving him a higher hairline on his forehead. The remainder of his hair was several inches long and was intricately folded forward and then back in what has been described as an “ancient Mohawk.” It is believed that, standing at five feet, two inches (1.57 meters), the Clonycavan Man chose this hairstyle to make himself appear taller. Scientists even discovered an ancient form of hair gel in his hair, made of plant oil and pine resin. The presence of this hair gel indicates that he was fairly wealthy during his lifetime, because it was made from materials found in France and Spain.

The most mysterious aspect of the Clonycavan Man is the manner of his death. Some have suggested that he was a king who was ceremoniously sacrificed. The injuries to his body suggest a particularly grisly death, which may have possibly been the result of torture. There is evidence of three powerful blows to his head, to the point where his skull split open. He had also been hit in the nose and the chest and was disemboweled. His nipples had been sliced off, which is specifically believed to be a sign of a failed kingship. In ancient Ireland, sucking on a king’s nipples was a sign of submission. Removing the nipples was intended to make a man incapable of kingship.

The Strange Stories Of The Bog Body Murders: Inconclusive

Unfortunately, while peat bogs are a good place to hide a body, they are not perfect time capsules or troves of information for investigators. While it is fairly clear that these three men died mysterious deaths—likely horrible murders—there isn’t much else to tell us about who they were or why they died. Whether they were criminals or kings, their troubling deaths are the ultimate cold cases, and it’s unlikely these bog body murders will ever be solved.

Top image: The famous bog body murders of Sweden, Denmark and Ireland all happened in peat bogs like this one, but no one knows who the victims were, why they were killed, or who murdered them. Here, Grauballe Man.                    Source: Yerpo / CC BY-SA 3.0 

By Ancient Origins



Great article on a subject that continues to fascinate us all.

DHWTY at the ‘Ancient Origins’ site, back on the 25th of March, 2020, published an article entitled, “Lindow Man: What Killed England’s Oldest Celebrity?” One of my favorite works on ‘Lindow Man,’ was written by Anne Ross & Don Robins, ‘The Life & Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man: An Archaeological Sensation’ (London: Summit Books, 1989).

The classic work of course, though out-dated, is still a fine read on the subject, ‘The Bog People,’ by P.V.Glob, transl., from the Dutch by Rupert Bruce-Mitford (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press., 1988), which speaks actually of at least some “SEVEN HUNDRED bodies of Iron-Age men, women, and children,” being discovered in the past two centuries alone.

Early volumes of the British publication, GENTLEMAN’S MAGAZINE, which began in the 18th century, also carried many archaeological accounts of ‘bog bodies’ found throughout Northern Europe in peat bogs.

Dr. Dan

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