Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Ancient Bog Mummies

Ancient Bog Mummies Reveal Secrets of their Identity

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

 Over the past centuries, the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children have been unearthed during peat cutting activities in north-western Europe, especially in Ireland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark.  Known as "bog bodies", most date to the Iron Age, between 800 BC and 200 AD, and show a remarkable degree of preservation thanks to the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of peat bogs, which are made up of accumulated layers of dead moss.  No one knows for sure who these people were and how they ended up in the bogs, but it seems that most bodies are not just the remains of unlucky people who fell in after losing their way as many of them display signs of violent deaths. Now, thanks to new research reported in the National Geographic, new clues are coming to light regarding the centuries-old mystery of their origins.

Around 30 bog bodies are housed in museums in Denmark, where scientists have worked for decades trying to unravel the mystery of who these people were, how they died, and why.  Funerary customs of the time and region involved cremation of the bodies, so the fact that some were found intentionally placed in the peat bog, suggest that these were not normal burials and may even indicate sacrifice. For instance, Tollund Man, the name given to a 4 th century BC bog body found in Denmark, was found with a noose still around his neck but with no other injuries and it appears he had been carefully placed in the bog – his eyes and mouth had been closed and his body placed in a sleeping position – something that wouldn’t have happened if he were a common criminal.

The Tollund Man

The Tollund Man as he appears today. Photo credit:

However, new research conducted by a team of scientists in Denmark has added a few more pieces to the puzzle. Chemical analyses conducted on two Danish bog bodies - Huldremose Woman and Haraldskær Woman – show that they had both lived in far-away lands before their deaths, and both appear to have been high-status members of their society.

Karin Margarita Frei, a research scientist at the National Museum of Denmark, and her team, conducted strontium isotope analysis of the leather cape, woollen scarf and skirt of Huldremose Woman and found that the plant fibres taken from the threads grew on terrains typical of northern Scandinavia, such as Norway or Sweden.  Frei also did an analysis of strontium isotopes in Huldremose Woman's skin, which revealed that her body contained strontium atoms from locales outside Denmark—showing she had travelled abroad before she ended up in the bog, or may have originally come from that location.

The clothing worn by Huldremose Woman was originally died blue and red, a sign of wealth, and a ridge in one of her fingers indicated it once bore a gold ring. "We think she's a very fine lady with expensive jewellery and expensive clothes and underwear," said Frei.

Huldremose Woman

Huldremose Woman (c 100 AD). Credit: Brian J. McMorrow

The research team followed up this research by carrying out the same tests on Haraldskær Woman, a bog body found in Denmark in 1835. Preliminary results of the strontium analysis mirror the findings for Huldremose Woman—Haraldskær Woman had lived elsewhere before her death. Frei and colleagues are now running analyses on the skin of Tollund Man to see where he had been before his death.

Heather Gill-Frerking, a mummy researcher for the museum-exhibit company American Exhibitions, told National Geographic that the new findings support her theory that bog bodies belonged to geographic outsiders, who may have married into Danish communities. She further suggests that these individuals were found buried in the bog, not as a result of sacrifice or as part of a religious rite, but because they came from communities that may have had different funerary customs.

However, other researchers have said the findings do not conflict with the view that the individuals had been sacrificed. Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen believes that they may have been sacrificed because they came from abroad and therefore had a special status.

"You sacrifice something that is meaningful and has a lot of value,” said Frei. “So maybe people who [had] travelled had a lot of value.”

The archaeologists acknowledged that, while the new research provides new insights into the bog bodies, there are still many more questions than answers. As Lotte Hedeager, an expert in Iron Age archaeology at the University of Oslo in Norway, said: "We will never be able to uncover the perception of life and death of those individuals 2,000 years ago. That remains a true secret of the bogs."

Featured image: Tollund Man, who was hanged with a leather cord and cast into a Danish bog, is housed at Denmark's Silkeborg Museum. Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic.

By April Holloway



They wouldn't just 'fall' in and not be able to get out would they?...

rbflooringinstall's picture

I think the obvious answer to at least most of them is murder victims.

Peace and Love,


That makes a lot of sense indeed. I think far too often religious/spiritual reasons are ascribed to ancient findings when it might be better to first look at everyday life. Sometimes people doing things for gain or for fun or because they can or because they are bad. Does there always have to be a diety involved?

My wife first came up with this idea, and I tend to agree. The bog people were murder victims, not sacrifices.

(I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I think many of the facts need to be straightened out.)

We attended the People of the Bog exhibit which toured North America in 2004, and I came to the conclusion that they were high-ranking citizens, that much is true. But the "facts" leading the researchers to assume they were sacrificial victims does not add up, given that there are too few bodies scattered over a wide geographical area and an even wider timeline, when dozens of tribes and peoples were moving through these areas.

Here are the known facts, coming straight from archaeologists, plus my reasons why the human sacrifice theory does not hold up given in brackets.

They are found far away from then-contemporary towns and villages. (Otherwise they would have been found far sooner than from the 18th to 21st centuries. It is only because the bogs have been used for building material and fuel that we have found them at all.)

The methods of death are varied, from strangulation to blows from axes and/or spears. (Wouldn't sacrificial methods be consistent from generation to generation? And wouldn't they be much more swift so as to avoid needless suffering?)

They come from vastly different cultures and times spread out over a large territory. (The numbers don't add up in this regard. With so many thousands of people living near these bogs over such long periods of time, there would statistically be far more "sacrifices" than we have found. Times were relatively tough during this long period. I suspect that the opportunity to appease the gods with sacrifices would have come up far more frequently than the number of bodies would suggest.)

There are no remains of fire pits, temples or other religious buildings nearby. (Which would strongly indicate ritual sacrifices if these were near.)

The remote locations where most of the bodies were found were not along primary roads. (Murderers tend to favour dumping their victims in remote areas to avoid detection.)

The victims were apparently important members of society. (Why sacrifice judges, priests and nobles, when they are the very people villagers and townsfolk look to during times of crisis?)

Here is more evidence, though some of it is admittedly slight.

Most of the extant myths and legends associated with the territories the bog people have been found in do not mention human sacrifice, particularly Celtic myths and legends.

Most of the tribes and nations associated with bog people participated in ransoming important prisoners of war, as evidenced by ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic and Romano-Celtic documents. They would not have sacrificed them if there was the possibility that they could be ransomed for a lot of money. It was the average soldier who was "sacrificed". Celts in some areas would then remove the heads of fallen warriors as part of their "cults of the head".

These are some of the theories which are reported in the article and my objections to them.

From the article: "Funerary customs of the time and region involved cremation of the bodies, so the fact that some were found intentionally placed in the peat bog, suggest that these were not normal burials".

Bingo. Murderers rarely care about the deposition of their victims' bodies, only about concealment and what better place to bury a victim that in a remote (for those times) bog?

Perhaps one of the weakest arguments coming from conventional academia is the one quoted in the article regarding Huldremose woman: "...these individuals were found buried in the bog, not as a result of sacrifice or as part of a religious rite, but because they came from communities that may have had different funerary customs."

If that is so, from which tribe or land did her people come from? Where did the archaeologist get her information? Who else in Europe, whether from Iron Age or Bronze Age cultures, buried their dead in peat bogs? And where are the other burials in the area? Surely there must have been more than one outsider living amongst the tribe that she was from? Was she the lone member who emigrated and married into the local tribe?

Another very weak argument is also found above: "You sacrifice something that is meaningful and has a lot of value,” said Frei. “So maybe people who [had] travelled [sic] had a lot of value.”

If that is true, what about merchants who traveled? Or important dignitaries? And why would you kill people who merely traveled?

This argument is perhaps one of the weakest yet. Travelers bring back stories which educate and entertain the villagers and the tribe. They bring back new ideas on growing crops and raising livestock. They also bring back potential trade to the area. You do not kill people who can improve the lot of the people, no matter what the circumstances.

But if it is true that most of the bodies were outsiders, then the theory that they were murdered fits even better. Who better to murder for their wealth than people traveling far away from the safety of their homes and tribes? Few of their fellow tribesmen would know where they had gone. Transportation and communication back then was far more primitive, meaning that there would only be one trace of these crimes to be found: bodies. Which needed to be dumped in remote locations so they could not be found. Bogs were some of those locations, which also just happened to preserve them so that archaeologists could later spin their tales of human sacrifice.

Another nail in the "ritual sacrifice" coffin also comes form the article: "The clothing worn by Huldremose Woman was originally died blue and red, a sign of wealth, and a ridge in one of her fingers indicated it once bore a gold ring."

OK, so if important people of the time were usually buried with expensive funerary goods, as was the case nearly everywhere the bog people have been found, where is the woman's ring? Stolen, I presume, by the very person(s) who killed her and dumped her body. Or taken by a relative who may have done the same.

One of the ironies regarding people who murder their kin is that the murderers tend to treat the bodies better than that of strangers. This woman was carefully wrapped in her clothing, meaning that great care was taken to ensure a dignified burial. It's certainly more dignified than Tollund Man, who was practically naked when he was dumped in the bog.

Finally, two reasons why the human sacrifice story became popular among archaeologists.

The origins of the ritual sacrifice myth came primarily from Roman tales of Celts, particularly the infamous "wickerman" episode written up in one of the histories. But would you honestly believe evidence coming from an enemy of the Celts? They wanted to make the Celts look too barbaric to live. Ironically, it was the Romans who later became truly barbaric with their blood sports.

Another source regarding human sacrifice in western Europe is far more dubious and contentious: The Golden Bough by Fraser. Most of the legends and stories he relates have no antecedents at all. Many have only one source: Fraser himself. I believe that the primary source for the archaeological myth that the bog people were human sacrifices stem from this book, which was extremely popular when some of the earliest bog people were excavated by scientists and studied.

Nope. The long-standing arguments that these people were sacrificed to their gods does not add up. If so, there would be much more evidence to support the theory. But if they were murdered, the facts make much more sense when looked at this way. The wide geographic distribution of the people, from Denmark to the UK and even Ireland, when added to the paucity of bodies over a huge span of time leads me to suspect that they were murdered and their bodies moved to the bogs to cover up that they were wealthy and important victims of crime.

One of the most poignant and sad of the bodies from that exhibit was that of the "Irish Princess", who was found complete with her hair intact. Who but a vicious, murderous pedophile would kill such a girl? Certainly not the same people who dressed her up in regal finery, only for it to be dumped in a messy, dirty bog.

If archaeologists would take their heads out of the collective sand and quit thinking of the bog bodies as sacrificial victims and think of them first as murder victims, then their stories would be given a much more truthful and honourable treatment.

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

Joanna... Read More

Next article