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Bog Bodies: The Naturally Preserved Mummies of Europe

Written By A.R. Arthur

A.R. Arthur (formerly A.R. Salandy) is a Black Mixed-race poet & writer who has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. He is the EIC of Fahmidan Journal/Publishing & Co, Reviews Editor at Full House Literary & Poetry Editor at Chestnut Review. Twitter/Instagram: @ararthurwriter https://ararthurwriter.wordpress.com/

The term “bog bodies” sounds like something out of a science-fiction novel where peat submerged bodies emerge from the earth in some strange zombie-esque awakening. However, these bodies are the remnants of the people who inhabited parts of Europe over 10,000 years ago. Although bog bodies have been found elsewhere, such as in North America, they’re most known in Europe. These preserved bodies offer archaeologists both clues and new questions as to the lives of those that lived during the Iron Age and before in Europe.

These mummified bodies are found in peat bogs typically found in northern and north-western Europe, with varying degrees of preservation present.

Arcane Examples

While most ancient human remains no longer have skin and internal organs due to decay, bog bodies typically retain them due to a combination of highly acidic water, low temperature, and a lack of oxygen that preserve skin while heavily tanning it. While the skin of bog bodies tends to be very well preserved, their bones are not due to the acidity from the peat. This has allowed archaeologists to discover everything from tools, wood and leather whose richness in keratin has allowed them to be preserved for, in some cases, thousands of years. In normal human decomposition, typically only teeth and bones remain unless specifically preserved, so this allows for us modern humans to peer into the murky window of the past.

The oldest known bog body is the skeleton of the Koelbjerg Man in Denmark. The Koelbjerg man has been carbon dated to 8000 BCE. The oldest bog body with substantial remaining flesh is the Cashel Man, dated to 2000 BCE from the Bronze Age.

Theories

Iron Age bog bodies show many similarities, including violent deaths and a lack of clothing, which has led archaeologists to believe that they were killed and left in the bogs as a part of widespread cultural traditions of human sacrifice and death rituals surrounding local cultures within these areas of Europe. Some have also speculated that this was a dishonorable form of burial for executed criminals. A more fringe anthropological and archaeological theory suggests that the bogs could have been viewed as connected to the afterlife or viewed as a necessary step in the passing between this life and the next. Contemporary theories suggest that the bogs may have been deemed as contaminated areas where decay was best placed to protect the living.

Historical Context

It is estimated that agricultural practices were introduced to the region of modern-day Denmark around 3900 BCE. During the early part of this Neolithic period, some human corpses began to be placed in the peat bogs, which have been confirmed through carbon and archaeological means of testing. Interestingly a majority of the bodies found from this period were between the ages of 16 and 20 when they died, which suggests that age-specific human sacrifices or indeed, wrongdoings may have been a major contributor affirming the aforementioned criminal theory.

However, a significant majority of the bodies discovered hail from the Iron Age where peat bogs were vaster and more present in northern Europe. These Iron Age bodies also shared similarities such as the items they were buried with reaffirming the belief that a cultural tradition existed in the burial and ritual sacrifice of at least some of these bodies. Examples include rings, general jewelry, and specific clothes for the dead, typically made of bronze. Some historical accounts do make note of slaves being drowned and buried alive although these are harder corroborate.

Evidence of violence from stabbings to strangling and beheadings were also evident such as with the Osterby Man found at Kohlmoor, near Osterby, Germany in 1948, found without a head. Differing examples suggest that certain groups and tribes placed their dead in the bogs without clothes while others did. Other examples of violence include the Tollund Man from Denmark, who was found with the rope used to strangle him still around his neck. The Yde Girl, found in the Netherlands was also found similarly. Archaeologists have also pointed to the pressure of the peat bogs and their weight on bodies, which influenced our view of some injuries in the contemporary era.

So, what do you think of the bog bodies? Do you think that ritual sacrifice or simply common burial resulted in the mystifying remains that we have found today or, do you think that this practice simply happened by chance?