Three Mysterious European Bog Body Murders

Three Mysterious European Bog Body Murders

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 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.

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 )

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.

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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.

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.

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 )

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 )

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.

For Millenia European Bogs Were Chosen As Burial Sites for the Murdered

Bog mummies were once a rare find, hailed by the archaeology community as uncommon specimens of another age. And the examples have been extraordinarily well-preserved thanks to very specific conditions that await corpses thrown into bogs during the right time of year. But, the nature of the bogs, as well as the way in which peat moss is harvested, have all impacted what we know about bog bodies. The truth is that there are at least 1,000 ancient bog mummies reported throughout Europe, making them much more common than we previously thought. And, looking through the causes of death, it seems the bogs have some very dark secrets to share.

Bogs preserve bodies so well for a number of reasons. Bogs were once lakes into which decayed vegetation has fallen, filling the crater with organic mass. As things fall into the forming bog, they are denied the oxygen which would make them decompose normally. This lack of oxygen, combined with the acids from sphagnum mosses that grow on the surface of the water, create an environment which can preserve hair, nails, even internal organs while often effectively tanning the skin of the corpse at the same time.

It’s a scientific wonder, but it’s not as rare as we once thought. Bogs appear naturally all over Europe, from the British Isles to Sweden to Germany to Estonia and Russia. But, something unites these corpses. Once examines, in their various states of preservation, they appear to share one cause of death: murder. Some have been hanged, some killed by blunt force to the cranium, which has lead researchers to examine why this could be so.

The 2nd century writer Cornelius Tacitus wrote that German tribes, then quite new to the Romans, would bury the bodies of their most disgraced citizens in bogs, adulterers and criminals who had been executed by the community. Subsequent finds back that up with few bog bodies showing an absence of violence.

Bocksten Man, found in 1936 in Varberg Municipality, Sweden, was discovered wearing finerythat only a wealthy man could afford. His clothing dated to the Medieval period and he was killed with three forceful blows to the head which fractured his skull.

A similar story can be found in the cases of most bug mummies, from the Iron Age Grauballe Man found in Denmark (had his throat slit) to Lindow Man II of Cheshire (stabbed and neck broken) to the Huldremose Woman (her arm nearly severed and rope found around her neck). This last specimen was found with fabulously preserved clothing: a wool plaid “suit” and a fleece hide cape.

These bog bodies, across time and space, were all murdered. While these people may have been convicted of criminal offenses, there may be another explanation as well. One working theory is that these people part of human sacrifice, something which there is now growing evidence of in Europe. Germany’s equivalent of Stonehenge, Pömmelte, shows signs of human sacrifice of women and child dating back to the Bronze Age. But again, there remains some doubt as to whether these people were killed as part of a human sacrifice for religious reasons or if they were part a conflict of some kind.

The harvesting of peat turf for fuel has long been practiced wherever there are bogs, but burning the bricks is becoming ever more rare, as is the collection of turf by hand, which is how most of bog bodies have so far been found. Instead, mechanized peat harvesters can chop up a body quite quickly and workers may not notice until they find fragments of human remainson the conveyor belt.

It remains to be seen how more bog bodies will be found in light of bans of peat harvesting in some areas. But, so far they offer a puzzling look into the past.

Bodies in the Bog: The Lindow Mysteries

In the 1980s workers in an English peat bog started unearthing bodies, the apparent victims of violence.

The remains of Tollund Man, who died in the 4th century BCE, were discovered in a Danish peat bog in 1950.

At the end of the most recent ice age, around 11,000 years ago, melting ice formed a bog in North West England. Lindow Moss, as the bog came to be known, stretched for 1,500 acres across what is now the county of Cheshire, encompassing a mosaic of habitats: woodland, scrub, and mossland.

Today the picturesque bog lies on the outskirts of Wilmslow, a verdant town that once offered Victorian Manchester’s wealthy industrialists an escape from the city’s smoky haze. For the less well off, Lindow Moss had long offered a more spartan home. In the 15th and 16th centuries landless poor eked out a precarious living here on society’s margins, cutting and drying peat from the bog to sell as fuel for stoves and soil for crops. The industry continued well into the 20th century, operating much as it always had. Workers would cut peat into blocks by hand and lay them in stacked rows to dry in the wan English sun, turning them repeatedly over a two-year period before they were ready for use.

But by the 1980s the Industrial Revolution had reached even this bucolic operation, and the whole process had been mechanized. Now peat is scooped up by mechanical diggers and placed in loose stacks, where it is left to dry. Afterward it is sent to a processing mill, checked for chunks of bark and branches large enough to jam the machinery, ground up into a fine compost, and then sold to mushroom growers around the country.

On May 13, 1983, Andy Mould and Stephen Dooley were standing by the mill’s conveyor, watching for anything that might foul the operations, when they spotted a lump that reminded Mould of a small, black leather soccer ball. “Perhaps,” they joked, “this is a dinosaur egg.” They pulled it off the belt and took it to Ken Harewood, manager of the peat works. Curious as to what the object might be, they washed it. But this was no ball. This was evidently, gruesomely, a human skull—missing its jaw but still possessing skin, some hair, and one baleful eyeball that stared at them.

The police were quick to respond to the grisly find. And in the best tradition of police work, they were quick to identify their suspect. For some time the constabulary had believed that a local man, Peter Reyn-Bardt, had murdered his wife. Problem was they didn’t have a body. They had fruitlessly dug over Reyn-Bardt’s garden, just 300 yards from the Lindow Moss. So when forensics reported the head was from a woman between 30 and 50 years old, the police were convinced.

Reyn-Bardt wasn’t hard to find. He had only recently been released from jail, having served time for a series of sex crimes against children. Confronted with news of the discovery in the bog, he quickly confessed. “It has been so long, I thought I would never be found out,” Reyn-Bardt told police under questioning.

In 1959 Reyn-Bardt, an airline employee, had married Malika Maria de Fernandez, a portrait artist who loved to travel. Their romance had been notable for its brevity—just hours from first meeting to proposal and then only four days until their wedding. Their union was similarly brief, lasting just a few months. Fernandez returned to traveling using her new husband’s discounted airfare while Reyn-Bardt settled into a cottage with a lover, a man.

Sometime in 1960 or 1961 Fernandez visited Reyn-Bardt at his cottage and demanded money, threatening to expose his sexuality if he didn’t pay. (Homosexuality remained a criminal act in England until 1967 the now infamous persecution and subsequent suicide of Alan Turing in the early 1950s would have been just one example of the risks facing gay men of that era.) Reyn-Bardt had no money to offer her, and the two fought.

“Something just boiled over inside me,” he stated in his confession. Later, while on trial, newspapers reported that he grabbed her shoulders and did not realize she was dead until he stopped shaking her. “I was terrified and could not think clearly. The only thing that came to mind was to hide her,” he told the court. He used an axe to dismember her remains, then tried to burn them. When that failed, he scattered them in the bog.

To the policeman in charge, Detective Inspector George Abbott, it seemed an open-and-shut case. The forensics showed a woman of the right age, and Reyn-Bardt had made a clear confession. But one issue nagged at Abbott: despite careful searching, the rest of Fernandez’s remains proved frustratingly elusive. Not satisfied, Abbott sent the head to Oxford University for further study.

The trial was conducted at the Chester Crown Court in December 1983. Reyn-Bardt sought to have his charge downgraded from murder to manslaughter. But then in a spectacular turnabout a professor from Oxford University’s archaeology department testified that the head could not possibly belong to Fernandez. Radiocarbon dating showed the remains were around 17 centuries old, dating all the way back to Roman Britain.

Reyn-Bardt tried to recant his confession but was convicted of murder by a jury count of 11 to 1. He spent the rest of his life in prison.

This sordid tale might have slipped away as just another gruesome historical anecdote. But a year later Andy Mould made a second morbid discovery in the peat. On August 1, 1984, standing again at the mill’s conveyor, Mould removed a piece of what he thought was bog wood. “We gave it a little clean, then we saw the toenails,” Mould said in a 2008 interview with the Manchester Museum.

8 Dunluce Castle

If Dunluce Castle looks familiar, that&rsquos for a good reason&mdashit&rsquos used as the filming location for the Iron Islands, seat of the Greyjoys, in HBO&rsquos Game of Thrones. The castle itself has been extremely well documented since it was first established along with the surrounding 17th-century market town. In the early 1600s, it was home to about 300 people by the middle of the century, it was swept up in rebellion, damaged, and ultimately abandoned.

It was only in 2015 that archaeologists realized there was a much older stone settlement that had once been built in the area. Dating back to sometime in the 15th century, the settlement would have been more contemporary with the castle&rsquos original construction, and it would have circled the gates high up on the cliffs. Discoveries of fireplaces have allowed for carbon-dating, confirming that the settlement was occupied at the same time the castle was being inhabited by its founders, the MacQuillans. Just who lived in the settlement, and what kind of relationship they had with the builders of Dunluce, is a complete mystery. No other records of the settlement or the people have been found.


The preservation of bog bodies in peat bogs is a natural phenomenon, and not the result of human mummification processes. [1] It is caused by the unique physical and biochemical composition of the bogs. [13] Different types of bogs can affect the mummification process differently: raised bogs best preserve the corpses, whereas fens and transitional bogs tend to preserve harder tissues such as the skeleton rather than the soft tissue. [13]

A limited number of bogs have the correct conditions for preservation of mammalian tissue. Most of these are located in colder climates near bodies of salt water. [14] For example, in the area of Denmark where the Haraldskær Woman was recovered, salt air from the North Sea blows across the Jutland wetlands and provides an ideal environment for the growth of peat. [15] As new peat replaces the old peat, the older material underneath rots and releases humic acid, also known as bog acid. The bog acids, with pH levels similar to vinegar, conserve the human bodies in the same way as fruit is preserved by pickling. [16] In addition, peat bogs form in areas lacking drainage and hence are characterized by almost completely anaerobic conditions. This environment, highly acidic and devoid of oxygen, denies the prevalent subsurface aerobic organisms any opportunity to initiate decomposition. Researchers discovered that conservation also required that they place the body in the bog during the winter or early spring when the water temperature is cold—i.e., less than 4 °C (40 °F). [16] This allows bog acids to saturate the tissues before decay can begin. Bacteria are unable to grow rapidly enough for decomposition at temperatures under 4 °C. [16]

The bog chemical environment involves a completely saturated acidic environment, where considerable concentrations of organic acids, which contribute most to the low pH of bog waters, and aldehydes are present. [17] Layers of sphagnum, which are compacted layers of irregular mosses and other peat debris, and peat assist in preserving the cadavers by enveloping the tissue in a cold immobilizing matrix, impeding water circulation and any oxygenation. [18] An additional feature of anaerobic preservation by acidic bogs is the ability to conserve hair, clothing and leather items. Modern experimenters have been able to mimic bog conditions in the laboratory and successfully demonstrate the preservation process, albeit over shorter time frames than the 2,500 years that Haraldskær Woman's body has survived. Most of the bog bodies discovered showed some aspects of decay or else were not properly conserved. When such specimens are exposed to the normal atmosphere, they may begin to decompose rapidly. As a result, many specimens have been effectively destroyed. As of 1979, the number of specimens that have been preserved following discovery was 53. [19] [20]

Mesolithic to Bronze Age Edit

The oldest bog body that has been identified is the Koelbjerg Man from Denmark, who has been dated to 8000 BCE, during the Mesolithic period. [1]

Around 3900 BCE, [21] agriculture was introduced to Denmark, either through cultural exchange or by migrating farmers, marking the beginning of the Neolithic in the region. [22] It was during the early part of this Neolithic period that a number of human corpses that were interred in the area's peat bogs left evidence that there had been resistance to its introduction. [23] A disproportionate number of the Early Neolithic bodies found in Danish bogs were aged between 16 and 20 at the time of their death and deposition, and suggestions have been put forward that they were either human sacrifices or criminals executed for their socially deviant behaviour. [23] An example of a Bronze Age bog body is Cashel Man, from 2000 BCE. [4]

Iron Age Edit

The vast majority of the bog bodies that have been discovered date from the Iron Age, a period of time when peat bogs covered a much larger area of northern Europe. Many of these Iron Age bodies bear a number of similarities, indicating a known cultural tradition of killing and depositing these people in a certain manner. These Pre-Roman Iron Age peoples lived in sedentary communities, who had built villages, and whose society was hierarchical. They were agriculturalists, raising animals in captivity as well as growing crops. In some parts of northern Europe, they also fished. Although independent of the Roman Empire, which dominated southern Europe at this time, the inhabitants traded with the Romans. [24]

For these people, the bogs held some sort of liminal significance, and indeed, they placed into them votive offerings intended for the Otherworld, often of neck-rings, wristlets or ankle-rings made of bronze or more rarely gold. The archaeologist P.V. Glob believed that these were "offerings to the gods of fertility and good fortune." [25] It is therefore widely speculated that the Iron Age bog bodies were thrown into the bog for similar reasons, and that they were therefore examples of human sacrifice to the gods. [26] Explicit reference to the practice of drowning slaves who had washed the cult image of Nerthus and were subsequently ritually drowned in Tacitus' Germania, suggesting that the bog bodies were sacrificial victims may be contrasted with a separate account (Germania XII), in which victims of punitive execution were pinned in bogs using hurdles. [27]

Many bog bodies show signs of being stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged or strangled, or a combination of these methods. In some cases the individual had been beheaded. In the case of the Osterby Man found at Kohlmoor, near Osterby, Germany in 1948, the head had been deposited in the bog without its body. [28]

Usually, the corpses were naked, sometimes with some items of clothing with them, particularly headgear. The clothing is believed to have decomposed while in the bog for so long. [29] In a number of cases, twigs, sticks or stones were placed on top of the body, sometimes in a cross formation, and at other times, forked sticks had been driven into the peat to hold the corpse down. According to the archaeologist P.V. Glob, "this probably indicates the wish to pin the dead man firmly into the bog." [30] Some bodies show signs of torture, such as Old Croghan Man, who had deep cuts beneath his nipples.

Some bog bodies, such as Tollund Man from Denmark, have been found with the rope used to strangle them still around their necks. Similarly to Tollund Man, Yde Girl who was found in the Netherlands and was approximately 16 years old at her time of death, was found with woolen rope with a sliding knot still tied around her neck. [31] Yde Girl's remains showed evidence indicating that she had sustained trauma prior to her death. [32] l Aside from the rope preserved around her neck indicating strangulation, near her left clavicle there are marks indicating that she was also subjected to sharp force trauma. [32] Yde Girl and other bog bodies in Ireland, had the hair on one side of their heads closely cropped, although this could be due to one side of their head being exposed to oxygen for a longer period of time than the other. Some of the bog bodies seem consistently to have been members of the upper class: their fingernails are manicured, and tests on hair protein routinely record good nutrition. Strabo records that the Celts practiced auguries on the entrails of human victims: on some bog bodies, such as the Weerdinge Men found in the northern Netherlands, the entrails have been partly drawn out through incisions. [33]

Modern techniques of forensic analysis now suggest that some injuries, such as broken bones and crushed skulls, were not the result of torture, but rather due to the weight of the bog. [34] For example, the fractured skull of Grauballe Man was at one time thought to have been caused by a blow to the head. However, a CT scan of Grauballe Man by Danish scientists determined his skull was fractured due to pressure from the bog long after his death. [34]

Medieval to Modern periods Edit

Amongst the most recent, the corpse of Meenybradden Woman found in Ireland dates to the 16th century and was found in unhallowed ground, with evidence indicating that she may have committed suicide and was therefore buried in the bog rather than in the churchyard because she had committed a Christian sin. [ citation needed ] She may have also been unable to afford proper burial. [35] Bog bodies have also formed from the corpses of Russian and German soldiers killed fighting on the Eastern Front during the First World War in the Masurian Lake District region of north-eastern Poland. [10]

North America Edit

A number of skeletons found in Florida have been called "bog people". These skeletons are the remains of people buried in peat between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, during the Early and Middle Archaic period in the Americas. The peat at the Florida sites is loosely consolidated and much wetter than in European bogs. As a result, the skeletons are well preserved, but skin and most internal organs have not been preserved. An exception is that preserved brains have been found in nearly 100 skulls at Windover Archaeological Site and in one of several burials at Little Salt Spring. Textiles were also preserved with some of the burials, the oldest known textiles in Florida. [36] [37] [38] A 7,000-year-old presumed peat pond burial site, the Manasota Key Offshore archaeological Site, has been found under 21 feet (6.4 m) of water near Sarasota. Archaeologists believe that early Archaic Native Americans buried the bodies in a freshwater pond when the sea level was much lower. The peat in the ponds helped preserve the skeletons. [39] [40]

Bog Borderlands

According to the old stories, the Viking king Harald Bluetooth of Denmark enticed Gunhild over from Norway to be his bride. When she arrived, however, he drowned her and laid her deep in Gunnelsmose (Gunhild’s Bog). This explanation was not only accepted when Petersen first advanced it in 1835, it was celebrated Queen Gunhild became a reality star. Around 1836, Denmark’s King Frederick VI personally presented her with an oak coffin, and she was displayed as a kind of Viking trophy in the Church of St. Nicholas in Vejle.

Among the few dissident voices was that of a scrappy student, J.J.A. Worsaae, one of the principal founders of prehistoric archaeology. Worsaae believed the folklore-based identification was hooey. He argued persuasively that the woman found in Harald­skjaer Fen should be grouped with other Iron Age bog bodies. In 1977, carbon dating proved him right: Harald­skjaer Woman—no longer referred to as Queen Gunhild—had lived during the fifth century B.C. Moreover, a second postmortem in the year 2000 found a thin line around her neck that had gone undetected. She had not been drowned but strangled. This changed everything, except perhaps for the victim.

In the absence of hard evidence, the temptation to weave bog bodies into a national narrative proved hard to resist. The most notorious effort to lay claim to the bog bodies came in the mid-1930s, when the Nazis repurposed them to buttress their own Aryan my­thology. By this time, two views prevailed. It was largely accepted that the majority of bog bodies dated to the Bronze and Iron Ages, but their murder was ascribed either to ritual sacrifice or criminal punishment. This latter interpretation rested heavily on the writings of the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, whose Germania, written in A.D. 98, portrays social customs in the northern parts of the empire.

On the whole, Tacitus thought highly of the local inhabitants. He praised their forthrightness, bravery, simplicity, devotion to their chieftains and restrained sexual habits, which frowned on debauchery and favored monogamy and fidelity. These were the noble savages the Nazis wanted to appropriate as direct forebears, and Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, established an archaeological institute, the Ahnenerbe, to justify that claim “scientifically.”

To the researchers at the Ahnenerbe, bog bodies were the remains of degenerates who had betrayed the ancient code. In a key passage, Tacitus writes: “The punishment varies to suit the crime. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees the cowardly, the unwarlike and those who disgrace their bodies are drowned in miry swamps under a cover of wicker.” Professor and SS-Untersturmfuhrer Karl August Eckhardt interpreted this last phrase to mean homosexuals. It was just a hop from here to the Nazis’ ferocious persecution of gay people.

“The Ahnenerbe’s was the dominant theory of bog bodies at the time, and it was dangerous to question it,” says Morten Ravn, a Danish curator who has published a historical overview of bog body research. One of the few who dared was a historian of culture named Alfred Dieck, who perhaps felt himself protected by his own Nazi Party membership. Dieck’s research demonstrated that bog bodies came from too wide an area over too long a span of time to represent proto-Germanic legal practice. But the man who torpedoed the Aryan theory of bog bodies was prevented from working as an archaeologist after the war because of his Nazi past. Ravn says, “He was really quite an unfortunate person.”

Shortly after Tollund Man was discovered, the detective in charge of what was initially a missing persons investigation had the good sense to call in Peter Vilhelm Glob, who had recently been appointed professor of archaeology at the university in Aarhus, the nearest big city. P. V. Glob, as everyone refers to him, has stamped his name more deeply than anyone else on the riddle of the bog bodies. His book, The Bog People—to the bighearted Glob, they were people, not bodies—was hailed as a modest masterpiece when it appeared in 1965. It is sharp, authoritative and moving all at once, and it remains intensely readable. Glob, who died in 1985, succeeded not only in providing the scaffolding for our understanding of Tollund Man and his kin, but in restoring their humanity as well. He conjured bog bodies back to life and made the world take notice of them. It was Glob who introduced Seamus Heaney to Tollund Man.

In Glob’s view, Tollund Man and most of the others were sacrificed to Nerthus, the Earth Mother, to ensure a good crop. We can see the goddess paraded around, surrounded by fabulous animals, on the great silver Gundestrup cauldron, buried as a sacrifice in a Danish bog not far from where several Iron Age bodies were also found. Glob notes pointedly that the cauldron’s goddesses all wear neck rings and twisted bands on their foreheads—“like the ropes round the necks of sacrificed bog men.”

They were strung up at winter’s end or early spring. We know Tollund Man was hanged, from the mark of the leather high up on his throat “if he was strangled, it would have been lower down,” Ole Nielsen explains. And we know roughly the time of year when this occurred from the seasonal contents found in his stomach and that of other victims: barley, linseed and knotweed, among others, but no strawberries, blackberries, apples or hips from summer and autumn.

The ominous conclusion is clear, Glob informs us: The winter gruel was a special last supper intended to hasten the coming of spring, “on just such occasions that bloody human sacrifices reached a peak in the Iron Age.”

Glob is fine—much better than fine—as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough, as he would no doubt agree. “I’m still trying to get nearer to Tollund Man,” says Ole Nielsen. “In my view, he could have been a willing victim, perhaps chosen from childhood—I see nothing degrading about that. Or maybe they drew straws—‘Oh damn! Well, better you than me!’

“If we had his DNA, maybe we could say where he came from—his clan, from the north, from Greece, wherever. Could he drink milk? Was he prone to diabetes? What about arteriosclerosis? That’s one of the reasons we sent him for a microCT scan in Paris, to look into his arteries.”

Tollund Man, discovered in a bog in 1950 near Silkeborg, Denmark, initially was thought to be the victim of a recent murder. (Christian Als)

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This article is a selection from the May issue of Smithsonian magazine

Maybe we shouldn’t even be using the term bog bodies at all anymore, insofar as it tends to impose a unified explanation on a diverse phenomenon. The first museum exhibition Julia Farley recalls seeing as a child is the Lindow Man in the British Museum. Lindow Man is the most intact of several bodies discovered in the Lindow Moss in Cheshire, England, during the 1980s.

“I still come and say hello to him whenever I’m in the gallery,” says Farley, a curator at the British Museum. Except, says Farley, he may not be quite the same Lindow Man she first encountered all those years ago.

Carbon dating puts his death somewhere between 2 B.C. and A.D. 119. We have only the upper half of him, but besides that he’s in fine shape. He once stood around 5-foot-6. His beard and mustache had been clipped by shears. His manicured fingernails suggest he didn’t work too hard. His brow is furrowed in consternation. He was just 25 or so when he died, and he died a particularly horrible death. “One of the doctors who examined him originally found he had been kneed in the back to bring him to his knees, garroted, had his throat slit, his neck broken, got bashed in the head and was left to drown in the bog,” says Farley. “This is the so-called ‘triple death,’ and it’s the model that’s been taken forward.”

Farley isn’t so sure, and she’s not the only one. First, the physical evidence is inconclusive. Farley thinks the sinew tied around Lindow Man’s neck could as easily be a necklace as a garrote. Moreover, some of Lindow Man’s “wounds” might have occurred after death from the crushing weight of peat moss over centuries. Different fracturing patterns distinguish bones that fracture before death, when they are more flexible, from bones that fracture after death. It matters greatly, too, whether Lindow Man lived before or after the Roman conquest of Britain around A.D. 60. Among other sweeping cultural changes that came in with the Romans, human sacrifice was outlawed. What’s more, post-Glob, the Tacitus consensus has broken down. It turns out, Tacitus never visited the regions he wrote about, but compiled his history from other contemporary accounts. “There’s a lot of problematic issues with Tacitus,” says Morten Ravn. “He is still a research source, but you’ve got to be careful.”

All things considered, Lindow Man has gotten roped into a tidy, satisfyingly creepy meta-narrative of ritual killing. “For me, we’ve got to disentangle Lindow Man from that story,” says Farley. “There’s clearly something a bit weird happening in Cheshire in the early Roman period. But we can’t say whether these people are being executed, whether they’ve been murdered, whether they’ve been brought there and disposed of, or ritually killed for religious reasons. However it turns out, they’re not part of the same picture as the Danish bog bodies. We need to approach Lindow Man and the other bodies from Lindow Moss as individuals—as people.”

Last October, Lindow Man was taken for a short walk to London’s Royal Brompton Hospital, which has a dual-energy CT scanner. The scanner uses two rotating X-ray machines, each set to different wavelengths.

“It gives you amazing clarity for both the thicker parts, such as bones, and the more delicate parts, such as skin,” says Daniel Antoine, the British Museum’s curator of physical anthropology. “We’re using a dual-energy scanner in conjunction with VGStudio Max, one of the best software packages to transform those X-ray slices into a visualization. It’s the same software used in Formula One to scan brake pads after a race to reconstruct what’s happened on the inside without having to dismantle it. The software in most hospitals isn’t half as powerful as this. We’re really trying to push the science as much as possible.”

In September 2012, the museum ran a dual-energy scan on Gebelein Man, an Egyptian mummy from 3,500 B.C. that has been in its collection for more than 100 years. The scan probed hitherto unseen wounds in the back, shoulder blade and rib cage. The damage was consistent with the deep thrust of a blade in the back. Gebelein Man, it appeared, had been murdered. A 5,500-year-old crime had been revealed. Says Antoine, “Because the methods are constantly evolving, we can keep re-analyzing the same ancient human remains and come up with entirely new insights.”

In Ireland, Eamonn Kelly, formerly keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum, claims a distinct narrative for his preserved Irish countrymen. In 2003, peat cutters found Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man in two different bogs. Both had lived between 400 and 175 B.C., and both had been subjected to a spectacular variety of depredations, including having their nipples mutilated. This and other evidence led Kelly to propose the theory that the Celtic bog bodies were kings who had failed in their duties. The role of the king was to ensure milk and cereals for the people. (He fills this sacral role by a kingship-marriage with the goddess, who represents fertility and the land itself.) Kelly’s theory was a significant break from bog body orthodoxy. As he explains it, St. Patrick tells us that sucking the king’s nipples was a rite of fealty. So lacerated nipples, no crown, either here or in the hereafter.

“In Ireland, the king is the pivotal member of society, so when things go wrong, he pays the price,” says Kelly. “All the new bodies discovered since then have reaffirmed this theory. The ritual sacrifice may be the same principle as in the Teutonic lands, but here you’ve got a different person carrying the can. To have one explanation that fits bog bodies across Europe just isn’t going to work.”

Even the Danish bog bodies who furnish the master narrative are being re-examined to determine how well P. V. Glob’s old story still fits. Peter de Barros Damgaard and Morton Allentoft, two researchers from Copenhagen’s Centre for GeoGenetics, recently examined one of Haraldskjaer Woman’s teeth and a piece of the skull’s petrous bone. They were trying to get a decent sample of her DNA to determine her gene pool. To get a workable sample would be a godsend for bog body research, since it could clarify whether she was an outsider or a local. To date, it has been almost impossible to get because the acid in bogs causes DNA to disintegrate. But if there’s any hope of obtaining some, the sample would likely come from the teeth or petrous bone, since their extreme density protects DNA well.

Mystery Mummy Forensics

“Since no records were available on the origin, life and living conditions, we used a broad panel of techniques to unravel the “life story” of the female individual resulting in an intriguing observation with an unexpected paleopathological and forensic outcome,” writes Stephanie Panzer and her co-authors of Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy.

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They traced the most recent hundred years of its history from its arrival in the Anatomical Institute of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in 1904, and transfer to the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection at Munich in 1970. The team discovered that the mummy lost its lower legs during a bombing raid in World War Two.

The researchers subjected the mummy to a rigorous forensic examination using comprehensive methods that mummification expert Dr. Zahi Hawass developed for understanding the full history, context and content of Egyptian mummies such as Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

The Munich mummy was also seen as a potential bioarchive since its internal organs were likely present. First, they subjected the body and its circumstances to a full appraisal worthy of any CSI team.

The Curious Case of the Bog Bodies

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?
—Seamus Heaney, “Grauballe Man” (1975)

O ne Saturday in the spring of 1950, brothers Viggo and Emil Højgaard from the small village of Tollund, in Denmark, were cutting peat in a local bog when they uncovered a dead man. He looked as though he had only just passed away. His eyelashes, chin stubble, and the wrinkles in his skin were visible his leather cap was intact. Suspecting murder, the brothers called the police in nearby Silkeborg, but the body wasn’t what it seemed.

Cracking the case required a special breed of forensic analysis. Famed Danish archaeologist Peter V. Glob, from the University of Aarhus, arranged for the body, along with its bed of peat, to be excavated and transferred to the Silkeborg Museum in a giant wooden box. An examination of the contents of the dead man’s stomach suggested—and radiocarbon dating later confirmed—that he had lived during the third century B.C., in the pre-Roman Iron Age. For more than 2,000 years, Tollund Man, as the corpse became known, had lain at the bottom of the bog, nearly untouched by time, as all of recorded history marched forward over his head. 1

Since the 18th century, the peat bogs of Northern Europe have yielded hundreds of human corpses dating from as far back as 8,000 B.C. Like Tollund Man, many of these so-called bog bodies are exquisitely preserved—their skin, intestines, internal organs, nails, hair, and even the contents of their stomachs and some of their clothes left in remarkable condition. Despite their great diversity—they comprise men and women, adults and children, kings and commoners—a surprising number seem to have been violently dispatched and deliberately placed in bogs, leading some experts to conclude that the bogs served as mass graves for offed outcasts and religious sacrifices. Tollund Man, for example, had evidently been hanged.

Our Neanderthal Complex

In August 1856, limestone quarry workers blasting out the entrance to the Feldhofer grotto in the Neander Valley of west-central Germany found a set of skeletal remains. Assuming the skull scraps, arm bones, ribs, and pelvis were from an ancient. READ MORE

The bogs are curious tombs, likely harboring homicide victims both honored and disgraced.

The bogs work their magic upon the flesh through the action of a long-chained molecule called sphagnan, found in decaying peat moss. Sphagnan reacts with enzymes secreted by putrefying bacteria, preventing the microbes from breaking down organic matter. At the same time, sphagnan leaches calcium from bones, leaving them bendy like rubber or dissolving them altogether. And because peat moss also contains humic acid, which expels water from soft tissue, skin steeped in bog water turns to bronzed hide. Even the best-preserved bog bodies emerge looking like golems, rudely crafted from leather and mud.

These accidental mummies have inspired generations of scholars and writers, including famed psychologist Carl Jung and the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney. But while nearly 1,000 bodies have been found in the bogs, only a few hundred have been carefully studied. In the first century A.D., Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus offered one of the earliest written interpretations of how they ended up in their watery graves. In his ethnographic work Germania, he alleged that German tribes killed and buried in the bog people who had committed adultery and other “deeds of shame,” including “cowards, shirkers and sodomites.” 2

Many scholars have since questioned the accuracy of Tacitus’ claims. But more recent archaeological finds, including the exhumation of Tollund Man, seem to support his theory that the bog was an intentional grave. In his popular book The Bog People, Glob proposes that many bodies were brutally sacrificed in ritual killings to appease a fertility goddess. He and other experts speculate that the people of the Iron Age saw bogs as gateways to the spiritual world. They left behind elaborate offerings, including jewelry, weaponry, battle armor, farming equipment—even butter, impeccably preserved in wooden churns.

Whatever their true meaning, the bogs are curious tombs, likely harboring homicide victims both honored and disgraced: emissaries to the supernatural realm, human payments to the gods, and diseased or offensive citizens, including adulterous wives. Here are five of the most compelling—and cringe-worthy—cases.

Tollund Man: A ritual hanging (375–210 B.C.)

Unmarked by time: On display at the Silkeborg Museum, in Denmark, Tollund Man’s visage seems eerily peaceful—if you ignore the noose around his neck. Arne Mikkelsen

When Glob first laid eyes on Tollund Man, he thought the dead man’s shuttered eyelids and pressed lips conveyed a peaceful expression. Then he saw the leather noose around his neck. Radiograph analysis later showed the man’s tongue was distended, suggesting that he died by hanging. But if he was murdered, he seems to have been laid in the bog with great care, his knees drawn up in the fetal position, his eyes and mouth gently closed.

Glob and other scholars concluded that the 40-year-old Dane must have been a prized sacrifice, perhaps offered to a god or gods to ensure a plentiful harvest, or in exchange for the peat his murders dug up from the bog for fuel. Because the burial custom of the day in Denmark was cremation, some experts have speculated that such human gifts were left whole to provide a deity with a fully functional servant. Others have suggested that these victims were meant to carry special messages or requests to the otherworld.

Oldcroghan Man: A sacrificial king (350–175 B.C.)

Iron-Age manicure: Oldcroghan Man’s pampered hands and nails suggest high social status. His remains—only a torso—are kept at the National Museum of Ireland. Flikr/doevos

In 2003, excavators clearing a drain in a bog between ancient Irish territories came upon the remains of Oldcroghan Man in the bucket of their machine. His death, in his 20s, had been especially violent: He was stabbed fatally in the chest, and then disemboweled and decapitated. A wound on his left forearm suggests he attempted to fend off the attack. When he was unsuccessful, his killers pierced his upper arms and threaded them with spancels—bands made of bark, which were typically used to hobble horses or livestock—in order to stake the corpse to the dense layers of peat at the bottom of a bog pool. In Irish folklore, spancels have magical properties that protect boundaries from invading armies. They are also associated with fertility, given their use during the milking of cattle.

Although all that remains of Oldcroghan Man is a torso, forensic archaeologists extrapolated his height from his arm span. According to their calculations, he was a man of great stature, over 6’3” tall, with enormous, muscular arms. Eamonn Kelly, an expert in Irish bog bodies formerly with the National Museum of Ireland, posits that Oldcroghan Man was a failed king, contender to the throne, or royal hostage sacrificed to a fertility goddess. His carefully manicured fingernails, unworn hands, and last meal (of cereals and buttermilk) imply high social status. 3 His nipples appear to have been cut, perhaps as an attempt to make him ineligible for the throne. Suckling a king’s nipples was a medieval gesture of submission that may have extended as far back as the Late Bronze Age, Kelly says. (Other experts argue that the bog itself was responsible for this nipple damage, as well as the immaculate condition of his hands.)

During the Middle Ages, the Irish saw kings as mediators between the supernatural and earthly realms. According to Irish mythology, they were sometimes sacrificed in a ritual that involved a combination of three killing methods, which could include hanging, strangulation, poisoning, drowning, or lacerating by axe, bludgeon, or sword. 4 In addition to bodies, worshipers often buried votive offerings in bogs along tribal boundaries, including yokes, cauldrons, weapons, and decorative dress such as gold collars, which were associated with fertility and the inauguration of kings. According to Kelly, these objects defined the borders of a king’s sovereignty—a power overseen by the gods. 5

Grauballe Man: A ceremonial execution (290 B.C.–310 A.D.)

Bad trip: An autopsy of Grauballe Man, held at Moesgaard Museum, in Denmark, showed he may have eaten a hallucinogenic fungus before he died. Getty/Christina Gascoigne

Before he was buried in a bog in Denmark, Grauballe Man was gruesomely executed. After peat cutters dug up his body in 1952, X-ray and computed tomography (CT) scans showed he had received a sharp blow to the legs that brought him to his knees. Then his head was yanked back and his throat was slit from ear to ear. The initial tests also indicated a fracture in his skull, but more detailed scans completed in 2002 revealed it was actually a smooth indentation, suggesting that the damage likely occurred after his death, from pressure in the bog—or possibly when a boy wearing clogs stepped on the corpse during excavation, an accident he confessed to 50 years later. 6

Unlike Oldcroghan Man, Grauballe Man, who died in his 20s or early 30s, has no obvious markers of high status or royalty. On the contrary, he may have been poor. An early autopsy of his stomach and intestines indicated that his last meal was of roughly ground corn porridge, a pauper’s diet. More recently, investigations of his tibia showed marks of increased bone density known as Harris lines, which indicate arrested growth and suggest he suffered severe stress, possibly due to malnutrition during early youth or infancy. He also appears to have had slight osteoarthritis in his right knee and his teeth are severely worn, possibly due to an infection.

Experts debate over why he was murdered. Upon examining the corpse, investigators found traces of a hallucinogenic fungus called ergot, now used to synthesize LSD. Some scientists interpret this finding, along with the grisly wounds, as evidence of a ceremonial killing, suggesting that commoners were sacrificed just as readily as kings. Other experts, however, are skeptical. They argue that the bog could have caused Grauballe Man’s leg wound in addition to the dent in his skull. And the ergot in his stomach, they say, probably wasn’t enough to make him hallucinate.

Kayhausen Boy: A slaughtered outcast (500–100 B.C.) 1

Human Hide: After his stabbed and bound body was examined, the remains of Kayhausen Boy were placed in a container of ethylene glycol and stored at the National Museum of Nature and Man, in Germany. Department of Legal Medicine, Universitatsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), Germany

In 1922, a German peat cutter found the mummified body of a 7- or 8-year-old boy wrapped in woolen fabric and a calfskin cloak. He delivered the body to the local natural history museum in a wheelbarrow. One of few children disinterred from the bog, Kayhausen Boy died from repeated stabbings in the throat. His left arm was also cut, a sign of self-defense. His killers had tied his arms behind his back and bound his feet with the calfskin cape, likely to transport the corpse. 7

X-rays revealed that Kayhausen Boy suffered from an infected socket at the top of his femur, which would have made it difficult to walk without assistance. He also has Harris lines on his left tibia, suggesting growth disorders from malnutrition or disease. In his book The Buried Soul, British anthropologist Timothy Taylor argues that Iron Age peoples may have believed disabled individuals had special powers. For those who could not walk properly, like Kayhausen Boy, divination or prophecy may have been the only available social role—a gift that could get a person killed if his forecasts didn’t come to pass. 8

Yde Girl: A strangled adulteress (54 B.C.–128 A.D.)

She devil: This reconstruction of Yde Girl’s head was made by researchers at Manchester University with the help of CT scans. Her body is kept at the Drents Museum, in the Netherlands. Drents Museum

Yde Girl’s long red hair so terrified the peatcutters who found her in the Netherlands in 1897 that they ran away, believing they had seen the devil. (A study of the pigments in her hair later showed that it was actually blonde, but tannins in the bog had dyed it a fiery red.) After the local newspaper ran a letter about the discovery, archaeologists excavated the remains and delivered them to the Drents Museum. Examiners concluded that the 16-year-old girl had been strangled with a woolen belt and stabbed above her left collarbone.

Like Kayhausen Boy, Yde Girl might have been killed for her physical deformities. CT scans revealed evidence of scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. And her right foot was swollen and appeared pigeon-toed, suggesting a limp. But her hair offers an alternative explanation: Sheared on one side of her scalp, it was left chest-length on the other. In medieval times, this was a mark of disgrace reserved for cheating wives, implying that Yde Girl may have been executed for infidelity.

Kristen C. French is a science writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in New York, Al Jazeera America, The Verge, and Guernica, among other publications. She previously covered business and the arts.

1. Glob, P.V. The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved New York Review of Books Classics (2004). Originally published in 1965.

2. Sanders, K. Bog Bodies and the Archaeological Imagination University of Chicago Press (2009).

3. Kelly, E.P. An archaeological interpretation of Irish Iron Age bog bodies. In Ralph, S. (Ed.), The Archaeology of Violence: Interdisciplinary Approaches SUNY Press, Albany, NY (2013).

4. Kelly, E.P. “The Bog Bodies Project: Latest Research,” slide presentation, National Museum of Ireland (2014).

5. Kelly, E.P. Kingship and sacrifice: Iron age bog bodies and boundaries. Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 35, National Museum of Ireland (2006).

6. Ravn, M. Bog bodies—a burial practice during the Early Iron Age? In Boye, L. (Ed.), The Iron Age on Zealand: Status and Perspectives (Nordiske Fortidsminder, series C, volume 8) The Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries, Copenhagen, Denmark (2011).

7. Behre, K.E. Collected seeds and fruits from herbs as prehistoric food. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17, 65-73 (2007).

8. Taylor, T. The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death Beacon Press, Boston, MA (2005).

Thursday, March 18, 2021

End Of Watch: Murder of Officer Denson Hudson

48-year-old Police Officer Denson Hudson and his partner Fred Risener were working in the early morning of March 18, 1941, in Apopka, Florida. Shortly after 1 a.m. the two officers spotted an open window at the Standard Oil Plant (it's now the Catfish Place) and approached the building.

There were two burglars inside the building and were breaking into the company safe when the officers stumbled upon them. The two unknown men would shoot at the officers with rifles hitting Officer Hudson. He was taken to the hospital but died from his injuries that night.


This chapter has explored the lives and deaths of numerous bog bodies, critically evaluating different interpretations of this phenomenon. As Glob ([1969] 1971: 105) sensibly suggests in his original monograph: ‘We cannot view as one uniform phenomenon the many bog people from this long span of time’. Both Burmeister (2007, 2013) and Joy (2009) reinforce this point, arguing we should be proposing a plurality of explanations and dealing with examples on a case-by-case basis. Standing back from the overview provided by van der Sanden, enriched here by a synthesis of new studies, we can see some general historical patterns emerge from the data. Earlier prehistoric bog bodies show few signs of violence and the bogs do not seem to attract large-scale depositions. As Stevans and Chapman (2020: 19) argue from a summary of the UK examples, most of the Neolithic and early to middle Bronze Age bog bodies, concentrated in the fenlands, seem to be formal burials. It is in the later Bronze Age and Iron Age that human interactions with the bog (construction, extraction and deposition) begin to alter that relationship. The many trackways, platforms, artefactual, animal and human deposits that form the focus of this book need to be contextualised in that shifting relationship with the mosses of northern Europe. At this stage, violent death and dismemberment increases but in line with cultural activity in other wetland (and some dryland) examples (a pattern also observed by Stevans and Chapman 2020: 19–20). Whether these communities were conquered or not, the violence seen in these barbarian tribes was further stoked and inflamed by the ruptures of conquest and resistance, rippling out from the Roman world. In areas such as Denmark and Germany this begins to take on a more massive, martial character, while in Britain, Scotland and Ireland the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD mark some of the most intense periods of bog offerings and ritual killings, smaller in scale but rich in value, whatever their motivation. We cannot escape the sense of a time of crises that prompted extraordinary gestures, turning the classical authors’ texts on their heads. These were not necessarily the innate bloodthirsty rites of a savage people but the responses of communities undergoing the rupturing dissolution of their own social systems and influenced by new concepts of violence wrought by armies on the move, if not actual conquest. Formal Roman era burials or interments in bogs are also known, particularly in the UK (Stevans and Chapman 2020).

We then see a period of quiet in the bogs, in depositional terms at least, before a resurgence of interest in both their metaphysical and practical usefulness. In medieval Christian psychogeography, the landscape of the bog, the moss and the mire begin to be reshaped to embody purgatory or portals to hell. The bodies found in this era may well be members of the ‘dangerous dead’ who were exiled from consecrated ground but had to be placed somewhere: revenants and restless priests, executed criminals, drownings, suicides, murders and the unbaptised. Most of these remains are clothed and often coffined, representing a formal interment (Stevans and Chapman 2020: 20), even if this is a non-normative locale. These pejorative associations heralded their demise bogs became seen as an unproductive waste, justifying drainage, clearance and cultivation. By the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, this was not only technically possible but morally necessary. The dead from this era look marginal: accidents wrought upon those unfamiliar with its mercurial territory (hawkers and traders), risky crossings, unwise and illegal endeavours (particularly poaching), murders and suicides, in what had become a desolate and liminal spot. In Scotland and Ireland in particular, this era is marked also with victims of conflict and religious persecution (Cowie et al. 2011). Those that still lived in some harmony with the bog often found themselves vilified, castigated and cleared, to the profit of private landowners or more recently state bodies. The relative desertion of the boglands attracted nefarious and sometimes violent incidents but by this time, most raised bogs or mires had been under the spade or the machine for generations. They were disappearing (we now know) to our future jeopardy, but giving up their dead in the process.

Against this sketch of changing rhythms of inhabitation and deposition, we can situate our historiography of bog body interpretations. As those remains came back to light, the earliest records we have (see Chapter 2) convey a sense of both concern and awe at the ‘marvel’ of preservation: they were either saints or sinners. These post-medieval accounts are blended with more pragmatic folk history: lost local characters, executed criminals, persecuted non-conformists, murder or conflict victims. Archaeology played its part here in ‘evidencing’ the major thresholds or events that shaped national identity. The antiquarian Enlightenment ‘reporting’ of this phenomenon and scientific or forensic enquiry ran hand in hand with burgeoning Romanticism (such as Countess Moira’s famine victim who was later interpretively transformed into part of a Druidic ritual). As classical education was increasingly mobilised in antiquarian histories, it was Arends (1824) in Germany who revitalised the use of Tacitus to portray bog bodies as a ragbag of cowards, deserters and degenerates, a model that was further mobilised in the Nazi period to very particular, prejudicial ends. Johanna Mestorf (1900), who first named the phenomenon, saw them as ‘punishment’ victims yet could not quite accommodate the evidence for women or children within this judicial theory. The number of staked or weighted down bog bodies led Martin (1924) to mobilise the ‘Wiedergänger’ theory of the restless or dangerous dead, an idea that Struve (1967) supported and that both von Haugwitx (1993) and Watkins (2013) have demonstrated has merit and relevance certainly to the post-medieval bog dead. The vast numbers of bog bodies for whom no discernible cause of death can be seen prompt us to ask how, in the past, did communities deal with a mysterious or troubling death? As Fontijn (2020) evokes in relation to objects, the bog, with all of its properties and powers, may simply have been thought of as the ‘right place’ to deal with difficult and dangerous things.

Van der Sanden (1996: 169 2006) argues that Continental scholarship then began to pluralise interpretations, most notably in Dieck’s thoughtful yet flawed and inflated scholarship. Jankuhn (1977) linked the notion of execution to religious practice – punishment had a sacred significance, for transgression could offend the gods – the Strafopferthese. It was in Denmark that this notion of sacrality and sacrifice was then popularised by Thorvildsen (1952), before Glob’s ([1969] 1971) thesis on the bog bodies as fertility offerings to supernatural powers. We can see the legacy of this in much of the work on ritual killing by Stead et al. (1986), sacrificial theory by Taylor (2008) and Aldhouse-Green (2002, 2016), as votive offerings (in Bradley 2017) or depositions (Fontijn 2020). Ravn (2010) reminds us that some were normal burials, Lund (2002) sees the bog bodies as outcasts and witches, while Fredengren and Löfqvist (2015) find evidence for marginal lives. In Ireland, Kelly (2013) sees the ruined bodies of failed kings in his bog bodies. Some of these remains can now tell us very specific stories of their lives that help narrow these possibilities but others remain a relative mystery as Glyn Daniel asked back in 1952, stood over the body of Tolland Man: ‘Is this the face of a criminal, is this face of a prisoner of war, or is the victim of some prehistoric murder?’ (BBC 1954). It is a question we still find hard to answer, but building on van der Sanden’s (1996) still masterly work, Fischer (2012), Asingh and Lynnerup (2007), Burmeister (2007, 2013), Joy (2009), Fredengren (2015, 2018) and Chapman (2015) have brought richer, contextual approaches to the study that integrate osteobiography with wider landscape context and depositional practice that is the methodological approach followed here.

A neo-pragmatic and anti-ritual resurgence is represented in the UK at least, by Connolly (1985), Briggs (1995) and Hutton (2004a, 2004b) who resented what they saw as an unfounded ‘sanctification’ of accidental death or murder through the trope of sacrifice. The archival work presented here, building on the catalogues of Briggs, Turner and van der Sanden certainly provides further historic evidence for accident, murder and suicide on the bog, but as noted above, this tends to leave a particular forensic trace (fully clothed, with possessions) that fails to fit most of the Iron Age and Roman bog bodies. The chapter has shown that these clearer-cut cases can be vividly contrasted with the staging and execution of violence that has a more ritualised and performative dimension. It has resituated the scale and character of this violence within analogous evidence for Iron Age conflict and depositional practice to show that the bog bodies form part of a much wider cultural phenomenon of bellicosity and violence as an important trope of power. The next chapter will consider how this may have been transformed by the Roman world.

The following list summarises the multiple theories relating to bog bodies across all periods:

  1. Accidental death:
    1. during everyday tasks or crossing of the bog
    2. misadventure (e.g. drowning while inebriated or inadvisable travel)
    3. bog bursts
    4. escaping/fleeing conflict.
    1. individual, lone suicide
    2. assisted suicide, mercy killing or euthanasia.
    1. pathological killing
    2. gendercide (including targeting of marginal or vulnerable groups) and infanticide
    3. manslaughter (violent mugging or crime of passion/heat of the moment).
    1. of criminals
    2. of enemies (inter-/intra-tribal, ethnic or colonial)
    3. of captives (high- and low-status hostages)
    4. of those suspected of supernatural malignancy (‘witches’)
    5. of those feared due to ‘contamination’ (disease, infection, etc.)
    6. of ‘failed leaders/kings’
    7. of those persecuted for faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.
    1. formal burial (perpetual and/or expedient)
    2. formal burial (temporary, creating a useful corpse or corporeal elements, as ancestral mnemonic or enemy trophy)
    3. use of the bog for mysterious, troubling deaths (excised from normative rites or places of burial)
    4. use of the bog to control death of a powerful figure (e.g. witch, king) or suspected revenant.
    1. scapegoating (symbolic excision of violence, guilt or crimes)
    2. augury and divination
    3. appeal, exchange or repayment of supernatural debt
    4. harnessing of transcendent vitality/fertility rites.
    1. gift of life
    2. emissary
    3. becoming sacred (ancestor, supernatural agent or entering the divine).

    These categories are not mutually exclusive: for example, accidental death may shade into suicide suicide itself may not be ‘voluntary’ but brought about through terror or social exile a feared enemy captive may be used for violent divination persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation could be counted as gendercide and self-sacrifice might be classed as a kind of assisted suicide or euthanasia. Nonetheless, we can see at a glance that Glob himself was right to warn us – no one explanation will suffice.

    Where does this leave us in relation to the Iron Age dead? Van der Sanden (1996: 174) supports the idea that ‘many of the isolated bog bodies are to be interpreted as human sacrifices … [in] watery environments [where] … people sought contact with the supernatural world’. This interpretation is upheld in both Williams (2003) and Giles (2009) with the proviso that this could include the self-offering of an individual, sometimes out of duty or skill but also perhaps a desire to bring life to a close, altering both the balance of power, intent and post-mortem fate of such a sacrifice. This may have been a strategy to become a powerful supernatural being, mediating with the sacred or entering the divine. Reflecting on the phenomenon of his composite Hebridean ‘mummies’, Parker Pearson (2016: 15) thus encourages us to rethink this era as a time when the world was populated by ‘a complex constellation of beings, both alive and dead’. It was the medium of the bog itself that allowed people to manipulate time, or at least the effects of time, and as we know this quality has awed or intimidated every community that has seen its effects. Yet this slowing of time causes Taylor (2008: 145) concern: he rejects the notion that the bog was a threshold or portal, arguing instead that its cold cessation of decay was meant to ‘vex the ghost and prevent the progress of the soul’. The notion of the bog as a kind of purgatory might be eschatologically anachronistic for the Iron Age, given the temporary immersion of both butter and bodies which re-emerged, changed into something ‘rich and strange’ (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s account of the transformative effect of the sea upon a body, The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2). It also sees the physical world as one of divided realms with hard-drawn boundaries that were simultaneously material and supernatural, instead of a world where the spiritual resided and was immanent in such places. The bog was one (but only one) of the powerful places where Iron Age people could deal with the ‘end’ of things redolent with life force and reproductive power I believe this included those marked by or for death (for many different reasons) who required particular care. As we have seen, this was a violent world in which lives were taken for many reasons. The boundary we may draw here between a ‘pragmatic’ and a ‘ritual’ killing may not be relevant: in someone’s eyes, these were necessary deaths. Such life forces, such vitalities, were potentially dangerous and destabilising, yet potent. It was here in the bog that the cycle of becoming and dying could be manipulated, violently where required, and the final value of the bog bodies could be achieved, by entering this ‘thin’ place … a place of hierophany.

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