The man—or what was left of him—emerged from the Irish sod one winter day in 2003, his hair still styled the way he wore it during his last moments alive. The back was cropped short; the top, eight inches long, rose in a pompadour, stiffened with pine resin. And that was only the beginning of the mystery.
Spotted in the industrial-size sieve of a peat processing plant, he was naked, his head wrenched sharply to the left, his legs and lower arms missing, ripped away by the machine that had dug him from a bog in the townland of Clonycavan. His head and trunk carried marks of deliberate violence, inflicted before he was cast into the mire: His nose had been broken, his skull shattered, his abdomen sliced open. While he lay in the bog, the weight of sodden sphagnum moss had flattened his crushed head, and the dark waters had tanned his skin to leather and dyed his hair orange red.
A call went out to archaeologists, for this was no ordinary murder victim: Clonycavan Man was a bog body, a naturally embalmed testament to mysterious rituals during northern Europe’s Iron Age, the centuries just before and after Christ. Hundreds of these unusual mummies have been found in the wetlands of Ireland, the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and especially Denmark, preserved by lack of oxygen and anti-microbial compounds from the sphagnum.
People have been spinning tales about bog bodies ever since they were widely recognized as ancient in the late 1800s. Their sculpted repose contrasting with their cruel deaths, the bodies inspire fascination and a longing to connect with a remote ancestral past, when miry wetlands—now drained and dug out for profit—were portals to another world. Gods inhabited bogs; so did restless outcast spirits. Here Iron Age peoples might have buried the most feared or loathed among them, or sacrificed loved ones and even the powerful to win the gods’ favor.
These days investigators have new tools—CT scans, three-dimensional imaging, and radiocarbon dating—to make sense of the bodies and the few artifacts found with them. There is little else to go on. Iron Age Europeans left no written records of their beliefs and customs. Many of the bodies themselves vanished when they were reburied or left to decompose. Some, in museums, suffered the restoration efforts of overeager conservators and curators. Others are phantoms: Last year two scholars published an article called “Imaginary People” in a German archaeology journal. They reluctantly concluded that the late Alfred Dieck, a German archaeologist who made cataloging bog bodies his life’s work, fabricated many of the more than 1,800 cases he recorded.
Published: September 2007
Tales from the Bog
Tales from the Bog
Hanged with a leather cord and cast into a Danish bog 2,300 years ago, Tollund Man was probably a sacrifice. Like other bodies found preserved in Europe's peat bogs, he poses haunting questions.
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Robert Clark