Bog Bodies

28 Mar

Depending on certain variables, human decomposition is generally a very short process, and a dead body buried underground will normally be completely skeletonized in a maximum period of 50 years. If left out in the open, a body will decompose much faster than this. However, the mummified remains of bodies found in peat bogs, known as ‘bog bodies’, can be up to thousands of years old and almost perfectly preserved.

Tollund Man - Found in Denmark and found to be around 2600 years old. Credit: Sven Rosborn

Tollund Man – Found in Denmark and dated to around 2400 years ago. Credit: Sven Rosborn

Grauballe Man - Found in Denmark and dated to 2300 years ago. Credit: Malene Thyssen

Grauballe Man – Found in Denmark and dated to 2300 years ago. Credit: Malene Thyssen

Rendswühren Man - Found in Germany and dated to around 1900 years old

Rendswühren Man – Found in Germany and dated to around 1900 years old

Brammer Man - Found in Germany and dated to around 500 years ago. Note the still visible beard on his face.

Brammer Man – Found in Germany and dated to around 500 years ago. Note the still-visible beard on his face.

Peat bogs are most prevalent in cold, temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere (it is possible for them to occur in the Southern Hemisphere, but they are much smaller and less common), and thus, all the bog bodies located so far have been in Northern Europe and North America. Not all are well-preserved, but many still have intact hair, skin and internal organs. So, how is this possible? And, how did the bodies get there in the first place?

Peat bog - Credit to Boréal

Peat bog. Credit: Boréal

The water in peat bogs is cold, acidic, and lacks oxygen, and combined, these factors lead to amazing tissue preservation. Also, tannin (a compound present in tea – this is the stuff that can stain your tea-cups) in the bogs leads to the darker appearance of the skin, and has anti-bacterial properties that aid in the preservation. Unfortunately, the acid in the bog water often destroys the bones, as it dissolves the calcium phosphate in them, leaving only the tissue and hair preserved.

Because of the good soft-tissue preservation, the stomach contents of the bodies can be analysed in some cases, which tells us something about the diets of people during whichever period they lived in. In cases where bones have been preserved, archaeologists can tell what kinds of activities the person engaged in, and even if they were right-handed or left-handed! Also, forensic techniques have been applied to some of the bodies in order to reconstruct their appearances. Here’s some examples:

Reconstruction of Lindow Man's face - Credit: www.culture24.org.uk

Reconstruction of Lindow Man’s face. Credit: http://www.culture24.org.uk

Reconstructed face of the Girl from Uchter Moor - Credit to AxelHH

Reconstructed face of the Girl from Uchter Moor. Credit: AxelHH

The bodies that have been recovered from peat bogs cover a very wide time span, with some dated from 10,000 years ago and others all the way up to World War II. It seems that some of the bodies belonged to unlucky individuals who simply fell in, but many others appear to have died violently, after which they were thrown into the bogs. This may have been as punishment for a crime, or, perhaps it was human sacrifice. The majority of the violently-killed bodies have been dated to the Iron Age (this began around 3000 years ago, and lasted about 500 years), so some archaeologists believe that Iron Age groups may have had this means of execution or ritual sacrifice as a cultural tradition.

Overall, the bog bodies are not only interesting, but very useful to historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, as they yield so much useful information in regards to past peoples who lived around the bogs. For more reading on the topic, check out

http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/09/bog-bodies/bog-bodies-text

3 Responses to “Bog Bodies”

  1. C.B. McCullough March 29, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    So cool… I love archaeology.

    • Lisa H March 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed the article! Archaeology is great.

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  1. WHO WAS THIS MAN | lachlanmorgangths - April 6, 2013

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