The Stories Behind Seven Mind Boggling Bog Bodies
Since at least the 18th century, there have been discoveries in northwestern continental Europe and Britain of “bog bodies” - human remains which have been preserved in the anoxic environment of bogs. These specimens are very well-preserved, with hair, skin, and clothing often being retained for centuries. Bog bodies offer a unique view into ancient societies, but they also raise many questions that are often related to how they ended up in their odd burial location. Did they end up in bogs as human sacrifices? As a punishment for criminal behavior? Or perhaps by unfortunate accident? Each of their stories is uniquely mysterious.
A photo of Windeby I. ( PBS)
Windeby I (formerly known as the ‘Windeby Girl’) is a bog body that was discovered in a peat bog located in the town of Windeby, Germany. It was discovered in 1952, when peat from a bog was being cut by locals. Unfortunately, the machinery used for the peat cutting had already severed one of the body’s legs, one of its feet, and one of its hands.
Initially, the bog body was dubbed the ‘Windeby Girl’, as it was believed that the body belonged to a 14-year-old female due to its slight frame. There were no grave goods found with the body apart from a woolen band covering the eyes and a collar around the neck. For the former, it has been suggested that it had either been used to cover the corpse’s eyes after death, or to hold the hair back, in which case the band would have slipped down over the eyes due to the shrinkage of the body. Later, another bog body was unearthed close to where Windeby I was found. This time, it belonged to a middle-aged man who had been strangled with a hazel branch, and was then placed in the bog on a stake.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Germanic tribes that lived beyond the Rhine had the custom of punishing wrong-doers by having their executed bodies staked in bogs. Therefore, it was thought that the two bog bodies belonged to an adulterous couple who were caught and punished. However, there are some problems with this belief. Firstly, Tacitus’ information was biased and often secondhand. And second, the Windeby I bog body displayed no signs of trauma, as one would expect if the person had been executed. Instead, the remains suggest that the person had suffered from repeated bouts of illness or malnutrition, which finally resulted in death.
In 2007 the remains of the ‘Windeby Girl’ we re-examined and DNA analysis suggested that it is more likely that the body belonged to a male. And radiocarbon dating of the two bodies from Windeby revealed that the older so-called male lover was in fact 300 years older than Windeby I. Today, both the Windeby bog bodies (along with another bog body, a headless body , and a bodiless head), are housed in the Landesmuseum in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
The face of the bog body known as Grauballe man. ( Public Domain )
Grauballe Man is the name given to a bog body that was discovered in Denmark in 1952. This bog body was found by a group of peat cutters working in the Nebelgaard Bog near the village of Grauballe in Denmark. When Grauballe Man was discovered, a quick visual examination at the site revealed that he was completely naked and that he had no belongings with him. His strikingly red hair was also noted. This, however, was not the natural color of Grauballe Man’s hair when he lived, but the result of his immersion in the bog. Further examination at the museum revealed that he was about 30 years old at the time of his death, was 5 feet, 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall, and his hands and fingers were smooth and showed no signs of manual labor . Radiocarbon dating showed that Grauballe Man lived at some point of time between 310 and 55 BC during the Germanic Iron Age .
When researchers examined Grauballe Man’s stomach contents, they found his last meal was a porridge made of corn, seeds from 60 different herbs, and grasses containing traces of a poisonous fungus called ergot . The fungus probably made Grauballe Man sick and incapable of work. It likely caused painful symptoms , including convulsions, hallucinations, and burning sensations for the mouth, feet, and hands. It is possible that he was regarded by his neighbors as being possessed by an evil spirit , which could have led eventually to his execution and deposition in a bog. Grauballe Man was killed by having his throat slit.
It is also possible that he was a criminal who was punished by death or that he was a sacrificial victim . These hypotheses find support in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, though the lack of manual labor done by Grauballe Man makes the second hypothesis more plausible.
Today, Grauballe Man is housed in the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus and is one of its main attractions . He is exhibited in a room protected from light and temperature changes, so as to maintain his excellent state of preservation . Moreover, the room was designed in such a way as to allow visitors to experience how it is like to be in a peat bog.
The Upper body of the Elling Woman. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Elling Woman is the name given to a well-preserved bog body that was discovered in Bjældskovdal bog, near Silkeborg in Denmark in 1938 when a farmer was digging peat. Initially, the farmer thought that he had found the remains of an animal that had drowned in the bog. He only realized that these were human remains when he noticed the woolen belt around the body’s waist.
While the back of this bog body was well-preserved, its front was not. In the 1970s it was determined that the body was of a woman aged about 25 years old at the time of her death. Radiocarbon dating suggests that Elling Woman lived during the Iron Age of northwestern Europe, between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC.
The body was dressed in a skin cloak, and a blanket / cloak of cowhide was wrapped around her legs. Furthermore, the body’s hairstyle, which was a long pigtail formed by an intricate pattern of plaiting, tied into a knot, was noted and has inspired many modern re-creations. A skin rope was also found with the body, which suggests Elling Woman was hanged to death . The rope has a sliding knot, which made it suitable for hanging. In addition, Elling Woman’s neck has a furrow left from her cause of death. Scholars are uncertain if she was a criminal or a sacrificial victim.
Bocksten Man. Photo source: ( CC BY 2.0 )
Around 700 years ago, a young man now known as ‘Bocksten 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. His body was discovered in a peat bog in Bocksten in Sweden in 1936.
Studies conducted on Bocksten Man over the decades have revealed some interesting information about this young man. Based on his attire - a tunic / cote, a mantle / cloak, a hood, woolen hose, and leather shoes - which were relatively well-preserved due to the waterlogged condition of the bog, it was concluded that Bocksten Man lived in the 14th century. This clothing suggests that he was a person of high social standing. In addition, he also had two leather belts and two knives on him.
The man was between 30 to 35 years old when he died His long hair also supports the claim that he was a high-ranking individual in his society. Furthermore, it was found that there his skull had been damaged by three blows from a blunt weapon, perhaps a pole or a hammer.
If Bocksten Man was indeed a victim of murder , two main hypotheses have been presented regarding the reason why. The first is that Bocksten Man had been recruiting soldiers, and was killed for that. Another suggestion is that he had been a tax collector, which caused him to be murdered. It may be pointed out that Bocksten Man had a branch from a straw roof stuck into his chest, and it has been proposed that this was done, perhaps by the perpetrators of the crime, to make sure that their victim could not seek revenge from beyond the grave .
Bocksten Man’s face was reconstructed about a decade ago and the model is displayed in the Halland Museum of Cultural History.
Two 3D facial reconstructions of Moora: left by Kerstin Kreutz; right by Sabine Ohlrogge, based on the reconstructed skull in the middle. (Axel Hindemith/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
In 2000, peat harvesters near Uchte, Germany found pieces of human bone and tissue mangled inside of the blades of a peat harvesting machine. Radiocarbon dating showed the mummified hand and the bones belonged to a girl who lived over 2,500 years ago, at the tail end of the Iron Age.
She was believed to have been between 16 -19 years old when she died. What she was doing in the bog is still uncertain, but it could have been anything from simple household chores to gathering bilberry - a plant known for its intoxicating properties and used for medicine. Some researchers have even suggested she was a witch.
Called “Moora” for her discovery in the moor, scientific analysis shows that she had suffered from seasonal malnutrition and had a curvature in her spine that possibly resulted from the weight of a benign tumor at the base of her neck. Her hand was the only part of her body that was mummified, while the rest of her had been skeletonized.
Moora is now housed at the Institute of Legal Medicine at the University of Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, where scientists continue to research her life and death. Because she was found without personal belongings, jewelry, or other indications of a funeral, it is assumed that she was alive at the time she entered the bog.
The Tollund Man as he appears today. ( Tollundman.dk)
Tollund Man is the naturally mummified body of a man who lived during the 4th century BC. It is believed he was hanged as a sacrifice to the gods and placed in a peat bog where he remained preserved for more than two millennia. Today, the face of the Tollund Man is as preserved as the day he died. The look upon his face is calm and peaceful, as though looking upon a sleeping man.
This bog body was found by two brothers cutting peat near Silkeborg in Denmark in 1950. Analysis of his remains shows Tollund Man was slightly over five feet tall and approximately 40 years old when he died. The stubble on his chain, eyelashes, and the wrinkles in his skin can still be observed in minute detail. His last meal was a porridge made from 40 different kinds of seeds and grains.
He was naked apart from a leather cap and a wide belt around his waist. Around his neck was a braided leather rope tightened in a noose. It was clear that he had been hanged – but archaeologists wanted to find out if he was a criminal, a victim of crime, or part of a ritual sacrifice.
Tollund Man showed no signs of injury or trauma, apart from that caused by the hanging. It was clear that he had also been buried carefully 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.
When somebody died in the Iron Age, the body was cremated in a funeral pyre and the ashes placed in an urn, but Tolland Man was buried in a watery place where the early people of Europe believed they could communicate with their many gods and goddesses. He was also killed in the winter or early spring, a time that human sacrifices were made to the goddess of spring . And most scholars agree that Tollund Man was probably a sacrifice.
He now resides in a special room of the Silkeborg Museum.
Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum. ( CC BY 3.0 )
The Osterby Man, or the Osterby Head, which was unearthed in 1948 in Osterby, Germany, and dates to 70 – 220 AD. Only the head remains, but the hair is very well-preserved having been tied into a Suebian knot , a type of hair style reported to be prevalent among ancient Germanic tribes in the area.
It is unclear whether the Osterby Man was executed or sacrificed. It appears he suffered a rather violent death . His left temple was shattered, and fragments were imbedded in his brain. Osteological analysis shows that he was most likely 50-60 years old when he died. This indicates that he was probably Suebi and was a free man, not a slave. He may have been of high standing as well, since the Suebian knot was also a status symbol.
His age suggests that Osterby Man died honorably, making it plausible that he was sacrificed. However, it is not inconceivable that a man who was respected in his society may have done something to lose this respect and have been executed.
Top Image: Bocksten Man. Photo source: ( CC BY 2.0 ) The Tollund Man as he appears today. ( Tollundman.dk) Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum. ( CC BY 3.0 ) The face of the bog body known as Grauballe man. ( Public Domain ) The Upper body of the Elling Woman. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )