You might have heard about something called a “bog body” that pops up in the news once in awhile. Every few years or so, scientists scavenging around in northern Europe will encounter some bog body, date it, and slap a name on to it. But what is it exactly? Where did it come from?
What is a bog body?
A bog body is a naturally mummified human body found within peat bogs. The preservation of bodies varies, from extremely well-preserved bodies to mere skeletons. Some have been found with their organs, skin and hair intact, buried for thousands of years. While the bodies are incredibly intact (some look like they’re sleeping!), their skin is tanned as a result of the environment.
As the name denotes, bog bodies are found within the peat bogs as a result of archaeological digs. Bogs are widely found in the Northern hemisphere, where there are cold, temperate climates. The majority have been found in Northern Europe, including Denmark, England, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands. There have been some bog bodies found in the Russian wetlands and in Florida as well.
How do bogs preserve bodies?
Peat bogs are wetland areas that accumulate peat, which is a deposit of dead plant material. Bogs occur when the water at the ground surface is low in nutrients and is acidic. The anaerobic environment (meaning, free of oxygen) and presence of tannic acid in bogs lead to a remarkable preservation of organic material.
The bones are not as well preserved as tissue due to the acid in the bog dissolving the calcium. Different bogs affect the mummification process however. Raised bogs are better for overall preservation, while fens and transitional bogs tend to preserve skeleton rather than tissue.
Although there are many bogs worldwide, only a limited number can preserve tissue – these are in cold climates near bodies of salt water. The wind blows salt air from the water, promoting the growth of peat. New peat grows over old peat, which rots underneath and releases bog acid. Tannic acid has similar pH levels to vinegar, thus preserving a human body in the same way pickles are preserved. The anaerobic environment helps to preserve the body by keeping the organisms from decomposing.
For the body to be conserved, it must be placed at certain times of the year when the temperature is low enough. The idea time is during the winter or early spring, so that tannic acids saturate tissues before decay begins. However, when bog bodies are exposed to normal environments, they begin to decompose quickly.
How did they meet their end?
The bog bodies are widespread chronologically between 8000 BCE and the Second World War, although the vast majority of bog bodies date to the Iron Age. Based on anthropological investigation, scientists have been able to deduce insight into the lives and deaths of the bodies.
The oldest bog body found to date is the Koelbjerg Woman in Denmark. She has been dated to 8000 BCE, during the Mesolithic period. She was aged between 20 to 25 years old and had no signs of disease or malnutrition. Her diet consisted of mainly seafood, such as crustaceans and shellfish. It is not clear how she died, although it is possible that she drowned in the lake due to the distribution of bone over a larger area.
During the early Neolithic period circa 3900 BCE, there was agriculture in Denmark, likely due to immigration of farmers. At this point in time, there were a number of human corpses in the peat bogs, suggesting it may not have been voluntarily. These bodies were aged between 16 to 20 years of age. Theories include the usage of human sacrifices, or capital punishment.
Cashel Man existed around 2000 BCE during the Bronze Age in Ireland. Age 20 to 25 years of age, he was intentionally covered with peat after death. Further investigation of the body shows his arm was broken by a sharp object before death. This was likely a defensive wound. Post-mortem, his back was broken into two pieces and a cut on his back, most likely from the same sharp object. Wooden stakes surrounded his body, indicating the possibility of a ritual sacrifice. He may have once been king of the region, and was sacrificed due to poor harvests, as kings were once believed to be responsible for this.
The majority of bog bodies date to the Iron Age, 1300 BCE to 500 CE, for a couple reasons. First, bogs covered much wider areas than they do today. Secondly, bogs carried a spiritual significance within the communities. The bodies were believed to have been thrown into the bog as human sacrifices. Indeed, these bodies had accessories that reflected religious significance, including wristlets, neck-rings and ankle-rings. The people thrown in had violent deaths, such as stabbings, bludgeoning, hanging or even beheadings. The Osterby Man, found in Germany and dated between 75 and 130 CE, only consists of the skull and hair. The skull and hair are incredibly well-preserved, particularly the hair. His body was never found.
There are signs that corpses was held down by various weights, such as stones, twigs, or forked sticks driven into the ground. One particular body that shows a violent death is that of Old Croghan Man, who was found in Ireland in Croghan Hill. He was calculated to stand at 6 ft 6 inches, which was tall for the time (and still is!). He is dated between 362 BCE and 175 BCE, dying in his early twenties. He was buried in an ancient hill used for kingship ceremonies. It was also believed that he was killed due to poor harvests. The man was decapitated and had his body cut in half, with a defensive wound on one arm. Only his torso and arms were found. Deep cuts under each nipple suggest marks indicating the man was rejected as a ruler.
A medieval bog body named Meenybradden Woman, dating from the 16th century CE, was found in Ireland. Evidence indicates she committed suicide and was buried in the bog and not the churchyard because suicide was a sin.
A Closing Note
Bog bodies are interesting phenomena that give insight into the rich history and lives of people near the bogs. Perhaps we will find more bog bodies and learn more about the people and the era in which they lived.