Bogs in general have been a more spectacular field of study in archaeology. Throughout Ireland, Scotland, and Denmark, these anaerobic environments have preserved people, sites and artifacts for thousands of years. The bog body finds are well preserved, revealing information about the deceased individual that we rarely get to learn. The bodies found have hair, tattoos, intact brains, and even their stomach contents can be analyzed. They’ve also discovered amazing sites that have large portions of wooden structures and food preserved, like the prehistoric butter recovered. However, these finds are rare, singular individuals are found and they are often found by accident. Recently there have been a number of news articles about the entire army found in a bog in Denmark. Unlike other bog finds, this excavation was done purposefully and sought to address an ancient story about a massacre of Alken warriors.
The excavation team, which has been working since 2009, estimates that approximately 1,000 individuals that date to 2,000 years ago are buried in a bog in Denmark. To this point 240 individuals have been recovered, all of which are men between the ages fo 13 and 45 years. Trauma was found on many of the remains including injuries from animals and melee weapons like axes. The evidence of trauma, ages and sex of the individuals found all point to a conclusion that they were warriors, likely fighting during the Teutonic Wars. An intact axe with wooden handle found at the site further corroborates the evidence. However, the presence of animal bite marks indicates that they were not buried immediately, and were likely transported from the battlefield to this bog after a number of days or weeks.
Due to the preservation of bodies and the interesting ways the individuals seem to have died, the meaning of a bog burial is debated. In some societies, preservation is a sign of everlasting life and a requirement for entry into the underworld- such as in the Ancient Egyptian culture. Some of the bodies found in the bogs have votives and offerings supporting this line of thinking. However, decay can also be seen as the natural process with prevention of decay also stopping the release of the soul into the next life. Many of the bog burials have died violent deaths, suggesting that it was a disgraceful rather than sacred way of being buried. In the works of Tacitus from the Roman Empire, the bog is used as a burial for criminals in Germania. Bodies within the bog may have also been accidental, in the case of someone getting trapped within one and dying.
However, there is some literary evidence from Tacitus which notes the habits of the Northern European barbarians after battle. After the Teutons defeated the Romans in 9 AD, they killed off every single soldier and sacrificed their bodies to their gods through a number of rituals. The archaeologists therefore posit that after this battle, taking place between unknown Iron Age tribal groups, the defeated warriors were slaughtered, left in the battlefield and then brought to a shallow lake basin to be sacrificed to unknown gods. Geological study into the area showed that the bog itself wasn’t a landmark during this period of time, but rather the area was part of a lake. Further research on the bones and artifacts found thanks to the preservation will hopefully reveal ethnic affiliations and more about the individuals themselves. By combining this archaeological evidence with more research into the literature as well, it may be possible to determine the actual purpose behind the movement of an entire deceased army to this basin.
There are so many questions that can be asked of remains like this, and since it is such a unique find it will be difficult to get any clear answers until further work has been done not only to complete the excavation of the site, but also on the bones and artifacts. Personally, I’d be intrigued to see whether or not these are all people of one ethnic background or represent multiple groups. Also, I don’t think we can discount that the final burial at the lake wasn’t done by the families of the deceased. While Tacitus states that the Teutons were known for their sacrificial acts after battle- this doesn’t include moving the bodies and burying them or disposing of them. It only pertains to the acts on the battlefield. It is also possible that this final burial was done by loved ones in order to give their deceased a more appropriate send off. The effort that went into moving these remains needs to be considered from both perspectives.
Sorenson. 2012. An entire army sacrificed in a bog. Science Nordic. http://sciencenordic.com/entire-army-sacrificed-bog