Lynnerup, archaeologist Pauline Asingh, and other members of the team now interpret Grauballe Man’s death some 2,300 years ago as a sacrifice to one of the fertility goddesses that Celtic and Germanic peoples believed held the power of life and death. It could have happened one winter after a bad harvest, the researchers say. People were hungry, reduced to eating chaff and weeds. They believed that one of their number had to die so the rest could survive.
Grauballe Man, a strapping 34-year-old, apparently learned his fate a few days in advance: Stubble on his jaw indicates that he stopped shaving. Then came the terrible hour when the villagers—perhaps his friends and family—led him into a nearby bog. They picked their way among holes dug for peat and bog iron, the ore from which Iron Age people forged tools and weapons. At the edge of a flooded pit, one of them pulled back Grauballe Man’s head and, with a short knife, slit his throat from ear to ear. The executioner pushed the dying man into the pit. The body twisted as it fell and was swallowed by the bog.
Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, thinks similar scenes of sacriřce may have played out in his country’s ancient kingdoms. Three months after Clonycavan Man came to light, another ancient body fell from the bucket of a backhoe digging in a bog 25 miles away. This man had once stood almost six feet four inches tall, but only his trunk and arms remained. Arm wounds suggested he had tried to fend off a knife before he was fatally stabbed in the heart.
Then his body had been oddly mutilated—his nipples apparently cut, his upper arms pierced and small wreaths (withies) of twisted hazel threaded through the holes. Encircling one biceps was an armband of braided leather with a bronze amulet incised with Celtic designs. Like Clonycavan Man’s hair pomade, made with resin that archaeologists concluded must have been imported from the south of France, these were costly marks of status.