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Bog Bodies
September 2007
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Field Notes: Karen E. Lange
Field Notes: Robert Clark
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Tales from the Bog
By Karen E. Lange
Photographs by Robert Clark

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Not surprisingly, bog body research has taken wildly wrong turns. Desperate for historical accounts of preliterate Germanic societies, researchers turned decades ago to the writings of Tacitus, a first-century A.D. Roman historian. But his description of customs beyond the Rhine was based on second- and thirdhand accounts and written to shame Romans for what he considered decadent behavior. Tacitus declared approvingly that the Germans killed homosexuals and cowards and staked their bodies down in bogs.

Accordingly, many bog bodies were interpreted as people in disgrace, supposedly punished with torture, execution, and burial in the bog instead of cremation, the customary Iron Age practice. Windeby Girl, discovered in northern Germany in 1952, was said to be an adulteress whose head had been shaved in a manner described by Tacitus. Then, researchers speculated, she was blindfolded and drowned in the bog. A body found nearby was identified as her lover.

But the theory unraveled after Heather Gill-Robinson of North Dakota State University took a close look at the body and tested its DNA: Windeby Girl was likely a young man. Radiocarbon dating by other scientists revealed that the supposed lover lived three centuries earlier. The Windeby “girl” may have lost his hair when archaeologists digging out the body were careless with their trowels. And growth interruptions in the bones indicated that the young man was malnourished and sickly and might have simply died of natural causes. University of Hamburg archaeologist Michael Gebühr speculates that the body was blindfolded before burial to protect the living from the gaze of the dead.

In Denmark, a team of forensic investigators including Niels Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen has reexamined that country’s bog bodies and found that some of the damage once interpreted as torture or mutilation was actually inflicted centuries after death. Grauballe Man, discovered in a bog northwest of Copenhagen in 1952, is one of the best preserved bog bodies and now the most thoroughly examined. Previous x-rays of his body were hard to read—the bones, demineralized by acidic bog waters, looked like glass. Now CT scans have shown that Grauballe Man’s skull was fractured by the pressure of the bog, abetted when a boy wearing clogs accidentally stepped on the body as it was being excavated. Grauballe Man’s broken leg could also be the work of the bog and not, as some scholars had thought, proof of a vicious blow to force him to kneel for execution.

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