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Bog Bodies
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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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Another clue linked this new body, called Oldcroghan Man, to some 40 other Irish bog bodies including Clonycavan Man: All were buried on borders between ancient Irish kingdoms. Together with the costly ornaments, Kelly says, the locations suggest tales of royal sacrifice. In ancient times, he explains, Irish kings symbolically married the fertility goddess; famine meant the goddess had turned against the king and had to be mollified. Kelly believes the bog bodies represented the most splendid of offerings: high-ranking hostages taken to force rebellious lords into obedience, pretenders to the throne, or even the failed kings themselves. Each injury they suffered honored a different aspect of the goddess—fertility, sovereignty, and war. “It’s controlled violence,” Kelly says. “They are giving the goddess her due.”

Oldcroghan Man normally ate meat, laboratory analysis of his hair and nails showed. But residues in his gut indicated that his last meal consisted of cereals and buttermilk, emblems of fertility befitting a sacrifice to the goddess. After his death, his nipples may have been cut to mark him as a rejected ruler, says Kelly—in ancient Ireland a king’s subjects ritually demonstrated their submission by sucking on the ruler’s nipples. Then his body was hacked to pieces and sown along the border of the kingdom, his arms threaded with withies to confer protective magic that would guard the territory.

Science can’t prove Kelly’s scenario. Other researchers say, for example, that the bog rather than the killers might be responsible for the damage to Oldcroghan Man’s nipples; his waterlogged body was as fragile as wet cardboard. And even if Kelly is right about the royal status of Irish bog bodies, people on the Continent had a different culture—Germanic rather than Celtic—chiefs instead of kings, and, almost certainly, other rites of sacrifice.

Bodies still lying undiscovered in the bogs of northern Europe will yield more clues about how and why the bog people met their ends. But new finds are likely to be rare and often damaged when they are ripped from the earth by peat cutters and backhoes.

Lynnerup, who has applied the most powerful science available to the secrets of Grauballe Man and who can call up three-dimensional images of the body’s bones and muscles and tendons on his computer, doesn’t mind the lingering mysteries. “Strange things happen in the bog. There will always be some ambiguity.” Lynnerup smiles. “I sort of like the idea that there’s just some stuff we’ll really never know.”

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