Bog Bodies

In a County Laois bog in Ireland a new bog body has discovered this past wednesday. The body was found by an employe who was operating a peat milling machine in the bog. The remains are of a young woman, and initial examination of the body shows potential evidence of sacrifice. The remains date from 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. The body was not well preserved except for the head. Preservation and further examination will take place at the National Museum in Dublin. Continued investigation may reveal a large amount of information about the individual that is not normally preserved in traditional burials. However, at the moment there is little information available.

There have been over 100 bog bodies found throughout Northern Europe, with varying preservation. According to Irish Peatland Conservation Council: “For thousands of years the bogs, through their extraordinary preservative qualities have kept ancient remains intact that would have otherwise perished on dry land; such as the bodies of unwary travellers trapped in the bog, or prehistoric track ways; and sometimes even whole villages and farms.” Some of the burials found within the bogs were deliberate, complete with burial goods and the individual placed in a specific position. Others appear to be accidental, with travelers or locals who likely slipped into the bog and were unable to get out. Evidence of this is seen in the position of burial and artifacts found with them. Some were found clutching heather and sticks, which archaeologists argue may be evidence that they were attempting to haul themselves out of the bog.

Bogs in Northern Europe consist primarily of decayed vegetal materials which is inhibited from decaying due to constant wetness, acidic makeup and anaerobic conditions. This prevents decomposition of other organic materials that get into the bogs. When a body is buried in a bog the cold water prevents putrefaction, the decomposition of proteins and tissue in the body, and insect activity. The presence of mosses in the bogs further aid in preservation, as they act as an anti-bacterial. This environment is found in a number of locations, including Denmark, England, Germnay, Netherlands, Ireland, and even Florida. Due to the conditions of bogs amazing archaeological finds, such as the Céide Fields, a completely preserved neolithic village in Ireland. The site includes such amazing finds as house structures and jars of butter.

Reports of bog bodies have been found starting in the 1700’s with reports of bodies pulled from the peat fields in contorted agony. Throughout the 20th century, bodies have been recovered and preserved, allowing for more detailed investigations of the remains. Early interpretations argued that the bog bodies were the remains of disgraced peoples, punished for crimes and sins. The Windeby Girl, discovered in northern Germany in 1952, was interpreted as being an adulteress whose head had been shaved to show her disgrace, and then she was blindfolded and drowned in the bog. The nearby body was identified as her lover. However, deeper investigation into the DNA of the remains found that the supposed girl was actually a young man, and the associated ‘lover’ was buried 300 years after the first one. The loss of the hair was attributed to decomposition and carelessness in the excavation. CT scans found that the Windeby ‘girl’ was malnourished and likely died of natural causes. Finally, the blindfolding was thought to be a sign of protection for living who dealt with the dead rather than a symbol of the disgrace of the dead.

In depth analysis of many of the bog remains have found that supposed signs of disgrace and mutilation were actually caused due to the pressure of the bogs upon the bones or post-mortem destruction from bog milling machinery. The Graubelle Man from Germany, found in 1952, was first thought to be the victim of sacrifice or murder due to a broken cranium and numerous broken bones. Reanalysis of the bones through CT scans showed that all the breaks were inflicted following the death of the individual and were due to the pressure of the bog and the misguided steps of a young boys who trampled the skull.

The bog bodies are an important find for archaeologists because they reveal a lot of detailed information about the living individuals of the time period that isn’t normally recovered in skeletonized remains. The remains of an Irish bog body of a 25-30 year old woman found in 1978 revealed a woolen cloak, of a style worn in the Middle Ages, which served as a shroud. In 2003 a body of a middle aged man was recovered in Ireland that had his complete hairstyle intact. The man had longer hair in the back with pine resin used to mold the top into a pompadour. Evidence of violence is also preserved in ways that may be lost on just bony remains. The Graubelle Man from Iron Age Germany had his neck slit by a sharp knife, and the Clonycavan man from Iron Age Ireland sustained a number of defensive knife wounds across his arms before being fatally stabbed in the heart.

The bog bodies give archaeologists a unique opportunity to study remains that have their soft tissue, some even with the materials in their stomachs to show their last meal. The bog bodies do present a problem since some represent deliberate sacrifice, others acidental death, and some formal burial. Each bog body needs to be approached from a historically and geographically based context. Given the use of DNA and CT scan technology, accuracy can be improved. However, interpretation of cultural or religious beliefs must always be approached cautiously and with a large range of evidence.

Works Cited

Lange 2007. Bog Bodies. National Geographic.

Dunphy 2011. Iron Age Bodies Discovered in Irish Bog. Irish Weather News.

9 responses to “Bog Bodies

  1. You mention damage to remains by peat-milling machines; is there any regulation in effect requiring or encouraging an area to be surveyed before the machines move in, or is this even feasible in such an environment? Would this be beneficial?

    • Nothing has been done yet, although work has to stop if they run into one. Legislation is currently going through the government to increase protection. Some bogs have even been shut down due to large numbers of bodies being recovered.

  2. Hi, the bog in which the Cashel Bog Body was found in Co. Loais is owned by Bord na Móna who have a code of practice with the Irish Government by which they have had all their lands, 80,000 hectares, archaeologically surveyed. Cashel bog was surveyed as recently as 2005. They also fund the excavation of all sites identified once they are threatened by peat milling or the preservation in situ. Bord na Móna also cooperate with the National Museum of Ireland in providing training to all their employees in the recognition and reporting of archaeological remains. It was as a direct result of this training that the machine operator recognised the bog body and immediately reported it to the Museum. You can read the Bord na Móna press release here

  3. Thanks for the update! I like that the article just gives the interpretations and leaves out any shred of evidential detail. Hopefully they will actually write up what the body really looks like so that a more proper analysis can occur.

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