Cast into northern European wetlands, bog bodies have long appeared as opaque to archaeologists as their dark and watery graves. But new clues are coming in the centuries-old mystery of their origins.
Over 500 Iron Age bog bodies and skeletons dating to between 800 B.C. and A.D. 200 have been discovered in Denmark alone, with more unearthed in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. (Read “Tales From the Bog” in National Geographic magazine.)
Much of the bodies’ skin, hair, clothes, and stomach contents have been remarkably well preserved, thanks to the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of peat bogs, which are made up of accumulated layers of dead moss.
Tollund Man, for example, found in 1950 on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula and perhaps the most famous bog body in the world, still “has this three-day beard—you feel he will open his eyes and talk to you. It’s something that not even Tutankhamun could make you feel,” said Karin Margarita Frei, a research scientist who studies bog bodies at the National Museum of Denmark.
In Denmark, about 30 of these naturally mummified corpses are housed in museums, where scientists have worked for decades to figure out who these people were and why they died.
Because some bear horrific wounds, such as slashed throats, and were buried instead of cremated like most others in their communities, scientists have suggested the bodies had been sacrificed as criminals, slaves, or simply commoners. The Roman historian Tacitus started this idea in the first century A.D. by suggesting they were deserters and criminals. (See National Geographic’s pictures of bog bodies.)
But ongoing research is uncovering an entirely new dimension: When alive, these people of the bog may have instead been special members of their villages, which in the early Iron Age were loosely scattered across Denmark.
New chemical analyses applied to two of the Danish bog bodies,Huldremose Woman and Haraldskær Woman, show that they had traveled long distances before their deaths. What’s more, some of their clothing had been made in foreign lands and was more elaborate than previously thought.
"You sacrifice something that is meaningful and has a lot of value. So maybe people who [had] traveled had a lot of value," Frei told National Geographic at the Euroscience Open Forum in Copenhagen in June.
For Europeans dating as far back as the Neolithic period 6,000 years ago, bogs were both resources and possibly ominous supernatural portals, according to Ulla Mannering, an expert in ancient textiles at the National Museum of Denmark.
The bogs’ peat, which could be burned for heating homes, was valuable in tree-scarce Denmark, and an ore called bog iron was made into tools and weapons.
Among prehistoric people, “when you take things, you also offer things,” said Mannering.
This may be why the Danish villagers would deposit “gifts” of clothes, old shoes, slaughtered animals, battered weapons, and, for a period of 500 years, people into the black abyss of the bogs. (Related:"Medieval Christian Book Discovered in Ireland Bog.")
Danish Iron Age cultures left no written records, so their religious beliefs are unknown, Mannering noted.
"Very Fine Lady"
When peat harvesters began accidentally unearthing bog bodies in the mid to late 1800s, many were discovered without clothing, solidifying the view that they had been simple people, Frei said. (Watch a National Geographic Channel video about bog mummies.)
Tollund Man, for instance, was found with a belt but no clothes. “It doesn’t make sense to be naked and have a belt,” Frei pointed out.
Frei wondered, then, if some of the bog bodies’ clothing had dissolved in the bogs over the centuries. So she decided to examine Huldremose Woman, a mummy discovered in 1879 wearing a checkered skirt and scarf, both made of sheep’s wool, and two leather capes.
Using microscopes, she discovered that tiny plant fibers were stuck to the 2,300-year-old woman’s skin—remnants of ancient underwear, which later analyses revealed were likely made of flax.
Next, Frei performed a first-of-its-kind analysis of the strontium isotope contained in the flax and in the wool from the skirt and scarf.
Researchers analyzed the isotopes, or different varieties, of atoms in the strontium preserved in the flax and wool fibers. These atoms provide a chemical insight into the geology of the region where the plant and sheep lived.
The results show that the plant fibers taken from threads of the underwear grew on terrains geologically older than those of Denmark—those typical of northern Scandinavia, such as Norway or Sweden—suggesting that Huldremose Woman may have come from somewhere else, according to research published in 2009 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Frei also did an analysis of strontium isotopes in Huldremose Woman’s skin. Humans absorb strontium through food and water, and it’s especially prevalent in our teeth and bones—though many bog bodies are found without teeth and bones because of the acidic conditions.
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