Bog bodies are the naturally preserved human corpses found in the sphagnum bogs in Northern Europe. Unlike most ancient human remains, bog bodies have retained their skin and internal organs due to the unusual conditions of the surrounding area. These conditions include highly acidic water, low temperature, and a lack of oxygen, combining to preserve but severely tan their skin. Despite the fact that their skin is preserved, their bones are generally not, as the acid in the peat dissolves the calcium phospate of bone.
A limited number of bogs have the correct conditions for preservation of mammalian tissue. Most of these are located in the colder climes of northern Europe near bodies of salt water. For example, in the area of Denmark where the Haraldskær Woman was recovered, salt air from the North Sea blows across the Jutland wetlands and provides an ideal environment for the growth of peat. As new peat replaces the old peat, the older material underneath rots and releases humic acid, also known as bog acid. The bog acids, with pH levels similar to vinegar, conserve the human bodies in the same way as fruit is preserved by pickling. In addition, peat bogs form in areas lacking drainage and hence are characterized by almost completely anaerobic conditions. This environment, highly acidic and devoid of oxygen, denies the prevalent subsurface aerobic organisms any opportunity to initiate decomposition.
Pictured from left to right:
Grauballe Man, a bog body found in 1952 on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, lived in the early Iron Age and died from a slit throat. He is thought to be a victim of sacrifice.
Haraldskær Woman was found in 1835, also in Jutland, Denmark and lived during the Iron Age. She was naked and her clothes, consisting of a leather cape and three woolen garments, had been placed on top of her. Hurdles of branches and wooden poles pinned the body down. In 2000, forensic analysis revealed stomach contents of unhusked millet and blackberries. Early theories of her identity centered on the persona of the Norwegian Queen Gunnhild, who lived around AD 1000.
Lindow Man, found in 1984 in Cheshire, England, was strangled, hit on the head, and had his throat cut. His last meal was charred bread. He lived sometime between 2 BC and 119 AD. The year before his discovery, peat workers also found the head of Lindow Woman.
The Gundestrup cauldron was discovered in 1891 in Denmark. It is the largest piece of silverwork that dates from the Iron Age, and is part of a collection of artifacts belonging to the La Tène culture. The detail picture shown is one of several interior plates, and may represent the horned Celtic god Cernunnos.
Red sphagnum moss, a type of peat moss.
The Tollund Man was found in 1950 in Jutland. The head and face were so well-preserved that he was mistaken at the time of discovery for a recent murder victim. He wore a pointed skin cap made of sheepskin and wool, fastened under his chin by a hide thong. There was a smooth hide belt around his waist. The corpse had a noose made of plaited animal hide drawn tight around the neck. Other than these, the body was naked. His last meal was a porridge of vegetables and seeds.
The Elling Woman was found in 1938 in Jutland, twelve years before the Tollund Man was unearthed 200 feet away.They both lived during the Iron Age and are thought to have been hanged. She was discovered by a local farmer, Jens Zakariasson, who at first believed that her body was that of a drowned animal. The body was wrapped in a sheepskin cape with a leather cloak tied around the woman’s legs.