Bog bodies part of burial tradition spanning millennia, study finds

Several bog bodies are famous for being extremely well-preserved, such as Lindow Man from the United Kingdom, and Tollund Man from Denmark.

A study of hundreds of bog bodies unearthed from across Europe’s wetlands has revealed that they were part of a tradition that spanned millennia.

The remains of at least 380 individuals, victims of an armed conflict deposited almost 2,000 years ago at the site of Alken Enge, Denmark. IMAGE: Peter Jensen

Peatlands across northern Europe have yielded the remains of around 2,000 bog bodies (human remains that have naturally mummified in a peat bog), from the Mesolithic period up to the early modern era.

Several bog bodies are famous for being extremely well-preserved, such as Lindow Man from the United Kingdom, and Tollund Man from Denmark.

Lindow Man had died sometime in the late Iron Age of Romano-British period and – like many other bog bodies whose cause of death could be determined – had met a violent end, as indicated by the lacerations to his head and ligature marks around his neck.

Lindow Man had been deposited in a peat in Cheshire between 2 BC and AD 119. He suffered lacerations to his head, along with numerous other potentially fatal injuries. IMAGE: Einsamer Schütze/Wikimedia Commons

The prevalence of extreme violence among bog bodies has led archaeologists to believe that some may have been ritually sacrificed.

However, as level of preservation varies wildly, it is often impossible to determine the cause of death or distinguish between evidence of ritual violence and other forms, such as armed conflict or murder, with the exceptions being bog bodies found alongside ritual objects.

Equally, some bog bodies may represent accidental deaths and suicides.

‘Literally thousands of people have met their end in bogs, only to be found again ages later during peat cutting,’ said Doctor Roy van Beek from Wageningen University, and lead author of the study. ‘The well-preserved examples only tell a small part of this far larger story.’

Unspecified Bog mummy of a young woman found in 1936 in Rabivere, Estonia, who had died in the 17-18th century. IMAGE: Estonian National Museum (ERM Fk 748:2).

Doctor van Beek, alongside a team of Dutch, Swedish, and Estonian researchers, examined 266 sites more than 1,000 bog bodies.

‘The new study shows that the heavy emphasis of past archaeological research on a small group of spectacular bog mummies has distorted our views,’ said Doctor van Beek.

Their research, the findings of which have been published in Antiquity, found that out of 57 individuals whose cause of death could be determined, 45 had met a violent end.

Map showing the distribution of human remains in bogs. MAP: Antiquity; van Beek et al., 2023.

The team found that the tradition started in southern Scandinavia during the Neolithic, around 5000 BC, and gradually expanded across Northern Europe, peaking during the Iron Age and Roman period.

The youngest remains, known from Ireland, the UK, and Germany, reveal that the tradition continued into the Middle Ages and early modern era.

Hotspots for bog bodies were also identified, with certain wetlands found to contain the remains of multiple individuals, or to have been used repeatedly.

According to Doctor van Beek: ‘All in all, the fascinating new picture that emerges is one of an age-old, diverse, and complex phenomenon, that tells multiple stories about major human themes like violence, religion, and tragic losses.’