For many, the term ‘bog body’ likely conjures up images of a fully preserved human mummy – like Tollund Man from Denmark or Lindow Man from the UK – frozen in time by the low temperatures, acidic conditions, and lack of oxygen in the marshy environments where they were laid to rest. But recent research is demonstrating that human connections with wetlands, death, and burial are more complex than commonly believed.
A Danish discovery
The varied nature of the bog body phenomenon is exemplified by the recent discovery of an ancient human skeleton in a marshy area of Egedal, in Denmark, by researchers from the museum group ROMU.
Despite the find’s context, the archaeologists recovered only partial skeletal remains: first a femur and a jawbone, followed by other leg and pelvis bones. These do not offer enough information to determine the individual’s cause of death, but Emil Struve Winther, who led the investigation, suggests that the interment was probably the result of a sacrifice – a common occurrence among bog bodies – because of other objects found in the area, including an unused flint axe found 1m away from the skeleton, and a collection of animal bones found alongside the human remains and spread across an area c.10-15m around them, both of which point to ritual deposition taking place in this area in the past.
These partial skeletal remains may not look like a bog body in the popular sense, but ‘bog skeletons’ like this represent a crucial part of the record – something that is reflected in another piece of recent research exploring the practice at a broader level.
Understanding bog bodies
Human remains deposited in bogs have long been of interest to archaeologists. However, the majority of previous studies have focused on individual examples, or on specific time-frames or areas. The newest study, recently published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.163), has instead set out to identify wider trends across time and space by compiling a large database, encompassing more than 1,000 bog bodies from 266 sites across northern Europe. Another factor that has limited many earlier studies is a focus on ‘bog mummies’ – that is, those with surviving skin, hair, and internal organs. These make up just one category of the human remains found in bogs: in some conditions, the bones alone survive. In the latest study, researchers were conscious of the importance of including these so-called ‘bog skeletons’, as well as partial and disarticulated remains, in order to develop a fuller understanding of the phenomenon.
The first question the study hoped to answer was how the deposition of humans remains in bogs changed over time. The researchers identified six distinct phases, beginning with a few scattered finds dating back as far as the 9th-7th millennium BC – followed by a gap of two millennia before the practice started again in earnest in the Early Neolithic (c.5000 BC) – and continuing until well into the post-medieval period. As expected, the phenomenon appears to have reached its apex in the Iron Age/Roman period, but this peak seems to have lasted for longer than previously thought, starting in the Late Bronze Age and continuing into the early medieval period (c.1000 BC-AD 1100).
In terms of geographic distribution, the study determined that the highest densities of bog bodies are found in Ireland, the UK, northern Germany, Denmark, southern Norway, and southern Sweden, but that various areas around northern Europe peaked at different points in time. Between 9000 and 7000 BC, examples are found only in Denmark, southern Sweden, and Norway. Over the millennia that followed, new clusters appeared in areas like south-east England, northern Germany, Jutland, and the Irish Midlands, with the first sites appearing in Poland, the Baltic States, and northern coastal Norway around 1000 BC-AD 1100. By the last phase (AD 1100-1900), the centre of the phenomenon had shifted away from Denmark and southern Sweden to Ireland and the UK.
The other area of interest to the researchers was cause of death. As expected, where this can be established, violence was involved in most cases – and was prevalent across the whole chronology – and may be even more common than currently known, as evidence of injury does not always survive. However, not all bog bodies were the result of ritual or conflict-based violence: in rare cases, disease was a probable cause of death, and in later periods for which we have historical written records these indicate that several deaths were the result of suicide or accidental drowning, which researchers stress could be the case in earlier periods too, although we have no way of ascertaining this. Overall, the study confirms that no single hypothesis can explain all of the human remains found in peatlands. Nonetheless, the significant evidence for violent deaths and sites with repeated use does support the conclusion that most bog bodies represent intentional deposition.
This research certainly demonstrates the value of a comprehensive study of a large database, covering a wide expanse of space and time, and it is hoped that the data gathered here will be useful for future study. Meanwhile, a recent discovery in Germany is a reminder of the archaeological value of peatlands beyond the bog body phenomenon.
Excavations carried out on Duvensee Moor, in the Schleswig-Holstein region, as part of the CRC 1266 programme ‘Scales of Transformations’ at Kiel University, have discovered the first known Early Mesolithic cremation burial in northern Germany.
Decades of archaeological work at Duvensee Moor have revealed that the area is home to more than 20 Mesolithic campsites, centred around an ancient lake that has now silted up to form a peat bog. The latest discovery was made at a temporary Early Mesolithic campsite called Lüchow 11. There, in addition to evidence of roasting hazelnuts and fishing, the archaeologists identified cremated human remains among the remnants of a funerary pyre dating to 10,500 years ago, thanks to several surviving bone fragments that had been preserved by the anaerobic conditions of the bog.
It is very rare to find Early Mesolithic burials in Europe: to date, only later Mesolithic burials (after 8000 BC) have been found in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. The only burial of a similar date to the Lüchow 11 example that is currently known was found in Jutland, Denmark, and is also a cremation burial, suggesting that this might have been a popular burial tradition among Early Mesolithic groups.
It is hoped that future research in the Duvensee Moor area will lead to further remarkable discoveries, but Dr Harald Lübke, who led the excavations, highlights the urgency of such work, as climate change continues to pose an ever-increasing risk to peatlands and to the valuable archaeology within them.