What was it that appealed most to you about bogs?
The bog where Tollund Man met his end is striking today for its stillness and beauty. Off a dirt road in a suburb of the small city of Silkeborg, Denmark, a trail leads to the wetland, called Bjaeldskov Dal. In late winter—the season during which researchers believe Tollund Man was killed—I slogged through slush toward the narrow valley that cradles what remains of the bog. It was late afternoon, but still light. A drizzle of sleet hissed down. Up the steep hills on either side grew fir trees. Lower down, thick heather. In the wet of the bog stood willows and birches—young, white trees, and black, older ones dark with slick moss. Generations of cutters had dug out most of the peat. But a narrow peninsula, 15 or 20 feet higher than the surrounding bog, still jutted out into the mire. The soft, spongy turf was piled in damp layers, dense with past growth. Below, the bog’s waters were so dark with tannins that ice forming on the surface turned brown at the edges. In the mud and snow of the shore I spied tracks of weasel, fox, hare, and a little deer called a roebuck, amid rushes and reeds. I could hear the honks of geese, the quacks of ducks, and the cries of a pair of swans, coming from where the bog joins a lake. Closer at hand, in the quiet, I could hear, faintly, the trickle of snowmelt flowing into the depths.
Did anything go wrong?
It was snowing when I picked up the rental car at the airport in Copenhagen, but I figured I could manage the three-hour drive to Jutland. I had driven in snow before. I followed the highway across long, windy bridges west onto the mainland, then north toward Jutland. Though the snow fell steadily, for most of the trip I had no trouble. Only after I had left the highway in Jutland and begun my passage through the first of many traffic circles did I notice that something wasn’t right. The snow was falling harder, yes, and the accumulation on the road surface was deeper. But that didn’t explain why my car had nearly zero traction and the “skid” warning light kept flashing on the dashboard. To stay on the road, I reduced my speed and drove in second gear—fortunately I had rented a car with a manual transmission. A long line of vehicles formed behind me. I tried to ignore their headlights. Every time I sped up and switched into third gear, my car skidded. So I resigned myself to creeping carefully but steadily forward. Then, less than 15 miles (24 kilometers) from my destination, I saw several trucks stopped halfway up a steep hill. I had no choice but to stop, knowing it’d be hard to start again.
“The road is closed,” said a police officer, walking from vehicle to vehicle. The temperature had dropped and the snow was now turning to ice. The plan, he explained, was for vehicles, one by one, to drive up the hill, turn around at the top, then come back down in the free lane. When my turn came, I tried to go around the trucks and up the hill, but my wheels just spun. After spraying snow and ice everywhere, my car moved a fraction of an inch. A man knocked on my passenger side window. “Start in second,” he said. So I did, and with the man and a few helpful other stranded drivers pushing, I managed to start up the hill. At the top, though, my attempt at a turn sent the car skidding toward a drop-off. Steering, braking did nothing. Just as the car was about to fall off the road, I pulled the emergency brake and cut the engine. I sat there, shaken, not knowing what to do next. Luckily for me, a couple approached through the snow. The man willingly got behind the wheel and, with the woman and I throwing our weight on the front, fishtailed the back of the car so that the vehicle pointed downhill. I thanked them profusely, then resumed driving, very, very slowly, to the nearest motel.
The next morning, as I struggled to exit the parking lot, the reason for all the trouble became apparent. The motel employee who came to help me took one look at the wheels. “Summer tires,” he said.
What was the most bizarre encounter?
Before I visited the Landesmuseum in Schleswig, Germany, to view its collection of bog bodies, Professor Michael Gebühr, the institution’s resident expert on the subject, mentioned that I would get to see something normally kept from public view—“the tube.” I wondered what this might be. Was there a bog body in such desperate condition that it had been reduced to a mere “tube” of flesh? It seemed an odd word choice. Perhaps something had been lost in the translation of Professor Gebühr’s native German into English. But I didn’t press the matter. I figured I’d find out soon enough. And so I did. Within an hour of my arrival, I was in the museum’s storage rooms with Professor Gebühr. Another staff member pulled out one of the drawers that held the remains of Datgen Man. “The tube,” announced Professor Gebühr. And there it was, sitting in a box: a length of Datgen Man’s intestine. Professor Gebühr seemed delighted. The woman holding the box was not. The puckered ribbon of buckskin-colored intestine gave off a pungent odor. “Ah,” I said, not knowing how else to respond. I bent close for a careful examination and then straightened, nodding my head. Happy the ordeal was over, the woman quickly put the box back into the drawer and slid it shut. Some things are better kept shrouded in mystery.