‘Bog bodies’ – human remains naturally mummified by the preservative qualities of peat and wetlands – hold a particular resonance that sets them apart from skeletal or cremated remains. Their power lies in the sense of recognition that they provoke: they are so tangibly human. Although often discoloured and distorted by the environment in which they have come to rest, these individuals appear almost frozen in time, with the texture of their skin, their often carefully arranged hair, even their fingerprints and neatly trimmed nails challenging our senses and closing the gulf of centuries that lies between our time and theirs.
These figures are also able to give us unique insights into long-dead people’s lives that simply aren’t available from less well-preserved remains – details of their clothing and hairstyles, of tattoos, diet, and disease, and signs of trauma that left no trace on their bones. Such illuminating individuals form the focus of Bog Bodies: face-to-face with the past, a wide-ranging and thought-provoking book by Dr Melanie Giles of the University of Manchester (see ‘Further reading’ on p.35). Its chapters explore how our understanding of bog bodies has evolved over time, what modern scientific techniques have added to this picture, and the ethical questions surrounding our engagement with the sometimes startlingly familiar dead.
Many bog bodies look as if they could be stirred from slumber to share their experiences – yet (unfortunately for archaeologists) the dead cannot speak directly to us. Rather, as Dr Giles notes, their stories are filtered through the cultural context and beliefs of the period in which they are unearthed. Descriptions of the discovery of peat-preserved corpses date back to at least the 1600s, though they were surely encountered for as long as people have been harvesting the bogs for fuel. Early accounts framed their apparently incorruptible state as miraculous, while 19th-century enthusiasm for ‘racial history’ and nationalist narratives saw an explosion in the curation and study of these remains, albeit for ethnological research. It was the 20th century, though, that represents something of a ‘golden age’ for the discovery – and, crucially, scientific recording – of bog bodies. Wetlands were being drained increasingly intensively to reclaim land for farming, and commercial mechanised peat-harvesting saw ever-greater areas of bogs disturbed, leading to many more finds of submerged human remains. At the same time, from the 1980s onwards, planning reforms and the rise of developer-funded archaeology heralded a much more rigorous approach to reporting and documenting these discoveries.
Today, peat-cutting is waning as an industry, with a resulting decline in new finds, but scientific advances mean that the present is an ever-evolving era of reinvestigating known bog bodies – bringing to bear an archaeological arsenal of techniques from increasingly accurate dating methods and isotope studies to non-invasive scanning. The possibilities for enhancing our understanding of these ancient individuals are truly exciting – and, as Giles demonstrates in a ‘cold case’ study of a very well-known bog body, Worsley Man (of which, more below), capable of completely transforming our understanding of these figures.
Bog bodies are most commonly associated with the prehistoric, but known examples span much of the human story, from the Mesolithic period through to individuals who died within living memory. Many of these figures are interpreted as accidental drownings, suicides, or concealed murders, but others appear to have been committed to the bog for more enigmatic reasons. Chief among these are bog bodies dating to the later Bronze Age and Iron Age/Roman periods (c.1200 BC-AD 400); this span forms the main focus of Giles’ book, and of our discussion here.
Why were bodies being placed in wetlands during this period? While bogs might seem marginal places to us today, during later prehistory they were full of meaning. These watery environments were dangerous and difficult to access – shifting, expanding, consuming familiar landmarks, and threatening to swallow unwary travellers – but they were also full of very useful resources that Bronze and Iron Age communities needed. As well as providing the peat fuel that burned much more slowly than timber, these landscapes offered rushes, heather, and moss – materials to make textiles, baskets, and roofs – and medicinal ingredients and bog ore, the latter being a key source of iron in later prehistory. Bogs were rich, too, in fowl (and the less-acidic fens had fish) to feed the families of those who dared to venture into their depths – but these spaces also seem to have fulfilled more spiritual needs.
People visited them not only for practical reasons, but to carry out rituals involving the dead and to make offerings – and the effort that was evidently being expended in order to enact these rites within such a challenging environment suggests that they were seen as very special places. Bogs are liminal spaces, Giles suggests – locations that were neither fully land nor water, and which had unusual qualities of their own. ‘The bog pool was palpably different to other kinds of water bodies,’ she writes. ‘Here there was no flow, no generative fluidity of river, spring, or stream, just the black hole of the peat pool itself.’ With its apparent power to arrest death and decay, coupled with enigmatic elements such as the flickering bluish flames that we now understand as chemical reactions (intriguingly interpreted by some as ‘extremophiles’, indicative of an environment under threat), but which have long been identified in folklore as will o’ the wisps or other dangerous spirits tempting travellers to their doom, bogs may have been perceived as possessing a particular power, even agency, of their own. We might imagine them, Giles writes, not only as ‘deep places’ but as ‘thin places… where the sacred might be touched and the supernatural made manifest’.
A sacrificial economy?
If prehistoric communities did see these landscapes as a place to engage with other worlds or forces, perhaps we might imagine a transactional relationship with the bog, in which people left offerings in exchange for the resources that had been taken or to speed their renewal, or perhaps to appease or incentivise the intervention of an otherworldly power.
A diverse array of objects thought to represent such gestures have been recovered from bogs across Britain, Ireland, and much of north-western Europe. These artefacts are often drawn from the repertoire of everyday activities: agricultural implements such as sickles, millstones, and adzes, and domestic objects like food vessels and cauldrons. In Denmark, ceramics are common finds, while no such tradition seems to have been followed in Britain and Ireland, where wooden containers dominate. Denmark is also home to the magnificent Gundestrup cauldron, an ornately moulded silver vessel decorated with stylised animals, human figures, and faces. We find food offerings – jointed portions of meat as well as whole animals – and elements of chariots, including wheels, yokes, and the main boxes of the vehicle’s body. Weapons and shields are common finds, too – in Denmark they sometimes form heaped deposits that could represent the sacrifice of amassed war booty – as is jewellery, particularly the twisted golden neck rings known as torcs.
Other objects are less clear in their intention: what was the meaning behind the curious timber carving known as the Ballachulish figure – a roughly life-sized female representation that was recovered from bogland in Inverness-shire and now resides in the National Museum of Scotland – or the long plaits of human hair found in Danish wetlands? Equally striking are the musical instruments: curved horns and pendulous crotal bells, which are particularly associated with Irish bogs, and ornate animal-headed war trumpets like the Deskford carnyx (found in Moray – see CA 360; three carnyx players are also depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron).
Why was such a wide range of objects – many of them very valuable – consigned to the bog? Perhaps their destruction was seen as a constructive act, a gesture of bargaining, thanksgiving, or otherwise winning the favour of local spirits, deities, or ancestors. Melanie Giles suggests we might imagine these acts as being part of a wider ‘sacrificial economy’ – and, if this was the case, might the most valuable gift of all have been a human life?
Evidence of overkill?
One of the more distinctive aspects of later prehistoric bog bodies is the extreme violence that these individuals seem to have suffered at the moment of their death. Most have undergone strangulation, blunt- or sharp-force trauma, or a combination of these, inflicting dramatic, almost performative wounds that go far beyond what was required to end the victim’s life. Some figures have been found with their wrists and ankles bound, and Tollund Man, from Jutland (today held by the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark), who died c.405-380 BC, was found with a plaited leather thong still knotted around his neck. Its length, at 1.35m, suggests that he may have been hanged rather than strangled. It is unusual to see bog bodies of this period with a single injury, though: multiple wounds created by different implements, and indicating more than one assailant, are the norm.
One of the most famous examples is Lindow Man (CA 233; also known as ‘Lindow II’ and ‘Pete Marsh’, today he is in the British Museum), who died sometime between 2 BC and AD 129, and whose remains were recovered from peat bog near Wilmslow, Cheshire, in 1983. This individual had been taken into the deepest part of the bog, where he was subjected to a savage attack. A heavy blow to his back broke one of his ribs, and he had also suffered one or two massive axe blows to his head; another skull fracture was the work of a blunt weapon like a cudgel. Any of these head injuries would have been enough to kill, but Lindow Man had also been strangled with an animal sinew ligature, while a short wound immediately above this suggests that his throat had been cut or stabbed.
Decapitation and dismemberment are common features of bog bodies, too. Isolated heads have been discovered in bogs across Britain and Ireland, representing both men and women, and spanning the Bronze Age to the Roman period. Among these is Worsley Man, who was recently re-examined in a study co-directed by Melanie Giles. When his head was discovered in Astley Bog, near Manchester, in 1958, it triggered a police investigation (as did the finding of Lindow Man – more than that, this latter discovery prompted a local man to confess to murdering his wife, mistaking the remains for those of the still-missing woman). Forensic examination ultimately determined that Worsley Man was no modern homicide victim, but the remains of someone who had died centuries earlier. The coroner at the time recorded an open verdict, but four programmes of research – beginning in the 1990s, and making use of increasingly modern analytical techniques – have revealed far more details about how he came to die.
Cold case revisited
The most recent investigation, undertaken by the University of Manchester and researchers from Manchester Museum (where Worsley Man is held) together with colleagues from the Universities of Bournemouth and Bradford, began in 2018, and its results have been illuminating. New radiocarbon dating of the remains placed him in the early-to-mid Roman period, AD 131-251, while forensic analysis identifies the man as an adult aged between 26 and 45 at the time of his death, with a distinctively square jaw. The researchers found no reason to think that the head they were examining was anything other than that of a northern European, Giles notes, though whether this individual was a member of the indigenous population, an immigrant, or a Roman auxiliary remains unknown.
Meanwhile, CT scans of the head not only laid bare the rather rudimentary conservation that it had undergone decades earlier, with metal staples and twists of wire pinning together the underlying flesh, but also revealed new information about one of the man’s presumed wounds. A sharp object buried in his neck tissue, previously interpreted as some kind of point or projectile, was revealed to be a piece of bone that had snapped off during the decapitation. This is not the only injury whose interpretation has been revised: two more skull fractures are now thought to represent subsidiary cracks relating to another wound, rather than being the marks of additional blows, while a softer, more ragged fracture to the nasal cavity, cheek, and the right side of the jaw is now thought to be post-mortem damage caused by the buried remains being compressed by the bog.
That is not to say that Worsley
Man had not faced an extremely violent death. The 6cm-long split in the top of his skull was certainly manmade, inflicted using a heavy, wide-bladed weapon like an axe that had been wielded by an assailant standing in front of the man, possibly while he was on his knees. The shock of the blow had made Worsley Man clench his jaw so strongly that he broke a molar. There was evidence, too, of a sharp-force trauma behind his right ear – the work of a finer blade like a sword coming from behind. This had left a 28mm-long cut in Worsley Man’s flesh, but the damage to the underlying skull was much shorter and finer – a useful reminder, Giles writes, that we might sometimes underestimate the violence represented by marks on purely skeletal remains.
A final cluster of wounds relate to the severing of Worsley Man’s head. There were apparently two attempts at decapitation: the first caught and nicked the side of the jaw, possibly because his chin was drooping too far on to his chest, and both blows came from behind, using either a wide-bladed sword or, more likely, an axe. With no significant surviving neck tissue or any part of Worsley Man’s body to examine, we cannot tell if his throat had been cut or if further injuries had been inflicted on his torso – or if he had tried to fight back, sustaining defensive injuries to his arms and hands. The researchers were, however, able to dispel long-held theories that the remains preserved evidence of strangulation: previous studies had identified a possible ligature apparently embedded in the man’s flesh, but proteomic analysis has now confirmed that this is simply a ragged piece of Worsley Man’s own mummified skin. Analysis also points to the presence of at least two armed figures who were involved in his death, and what Giles describes as at least three ‘moments’ of violence marking this episode.
A time of violence
What was the significance of Worsley Man’s decapitation? Classical sources describe head-taking as a barbarous act that more civilised Romans were trying to stamp out among Iron Age tribes – might the man from Astley Bog have been the victim of such practices, which perhaps saw the head as possessing a particular potency? A number of images on Roman monuments, including on Trajan’s Column, suggest that the Romans were not averse to collecting crania as trophies or deterrents themselves, though. In the UK, a particularly vivid illustration of this is a memorial dedicated to Insus, a Roman cavalry officer, which was discovered in Lancaster in 2005 during excavations by the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit (it is now displayed in Lancaster City Museum). Standing an imposing 7ft high by 3ft wide, the probably 1st-century stone depicts Insus triumphantly astride a rearing horse, clad in an elaborately plumed helmet and billowing cloak. It is a dramatic scene, and one that is lent an air of menace thanks to one other element of the composition. In his right hand, Insus grasps a severed head by the hair – the body of its unfortunate former owner crumples beneath his horse’s hooves.
Insus, son of Vodullus, was not a Roman citizen, lacking the indicative ‘triple name’ that conveyed this status. The stone’s inscription also indicates him as Treveri, from Trier in Germany. This territory had lost its independence in the mid-1st century BC following a failed rebellion, a few generations before one of its sons was immortalised helping to subdue other indigenous groups. The impact of these armed invaders on the social and political structures of the people they encountered must have been world-shaking. The area where Worsley Man was found had been under Roman rule since c.AD 70 (it was previously part of the territory of the Brigantes), but the condition of his head suggests that it had not been exposed to the elements as an imperial trophy. Might he instead have been a Roman soldier brutally put to death in a revenge attack, before his head was dedicated to the local spirits of the bog? Or could there have been a ritual meaning behind his death, perhaps driven at least in part by the turbulent times in which he lived?
The extraordinary violence meted out to later prehistoric bog bodies has led some to suggest that they may have been reviled figures – executed criminals, or perhaps some kind of ceremonial scapegoat who was brutally punished in order to drive misfortune away from a community. Some of the bodies retrieved from Continental peat bogs have been those of physically very distinctive people – they include individuals with signs of spina bifida, people with spines twisted by scoliosis or with limbs shortened through skeletal dysplasia, perhaps dyschondrosteosis. Might these characteristics have caused them to be singled out when a sacrifice was required?
Not all bog bodies are obvious candidates for marginalised figures, though – on the contrary, some seem to have been very privileged. Individuals like Old Croghan Man, whose remains were found in Co. Offaly and are now held by the National Museum of Ireland, were well built and apparently well fed, with soft hands that do not speak of laborious lives. In Ireland, there is the theory of the ‘failed king’: rulers who were unlucky enough to hold power at a time of particular crisis, perhaps a war, a famine, or an epidemic. Medieval sources suggest that, during such disasters, their symbolic relationship with the land was held to be failing, and needed to be violently brought to an end so that a new, more fortunate king could be put in his place. Alternatively, might we view bog bodies as people who had been sacrificed – willingly or otherwise – in a liminal location so that they could travel to the other world as some kind of emissary, appealing directly to the gods or ancestors on behalf of their people? If this is the case, we could see some of these figures as having made a heroic choice, rather than representing a violation.
There might also be clues to be gleaned from the historic context that these people lived and died in. Melanie Giles notes that, in Britain and Ireland, some of the most intense periods of bog offerings come during the last few centuries BC and the first few centuries AD. Were these enacted by communities in the grip of a desperate crisis? The end of the Bronze Age witnessed a significant climatic downturn, heralding centuries of wetter, harsher environments and shorter grazing seasons; at the same time, many bogs were expanding and taking over productive land. These conditions would have been all-too evident during the Iron Age. Was the uptick in bog sacrifices that we see at this time an attempt to placate powers that seemed to have turned terrifyingly against the humans who lived alongside them? As we enter the 1st millennium AD, the Roman invasion and subsequent occupation would have caused unprecedented upheaval, as described above – particularly if early encounters were as hostile as the Insus memorial suggests.
‘We cannot escape a sense of a time of crisis that prompted extraordinary gestures,’ Giles writes, suggesting that, contrary to Classical accounts, ‘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.’
For now, while archaeological science gives us an increasingly clear picture of how people buried in the bog died, we still do not fully appreciate why. Our understanding of the beliefs and motivations behind these acts shift like the wetlands themselves – but insightful research like that of Melanie Giles and her colleagues is helping to firm up the ground beneath our feet.
Melanie Giles, Bog Bodies: face-to-face with the past (Manchester University Press, ISBN 978-1526150189, £25).