“Bog Bodies”, or cadavers found preserved in the peat bogs of northwestern Europe, are some of the most well preserved human remains discovered in archaeology. Because their bodies and belongings are often so intact, they garner quite a bit of speculation as to the circumstances of their life and death. Many have visible wounds and clear indications of violent death, often as products of religious sacrifice. We are given a shockingly detailed piece of a much larger and more complicated context that is not fully understood.
Peat bogs are composed of a tightly packed matrix of sphagnum plants. When these plants die, they release a sugar compound known as sphagnan that neutralizes nutrients in the water. This makes peat bogs a difficult environment for decay-causing bacteria to grow. Sphagnum also releases acid into the water, which ‘tans’ the cadaver’s skin, making it leathery and more resistant to damage (Moesgaard). This is why the faces of some bog bodies are so striking, as you can see every little detail of their expression in death, like in the case of the Grauballe man (Kuiper, Kathleen).
The Tollund Man is the most well preserved bog body to date, with even the sheepskin hat on his head intact. His head is topped with long hair in a braid, and only his arms and legs appear skeletal. He was found in 1950, and like many bog body discoveries, those who first found him thought he could have died quite recently. In reality his remains have been dated to 2,400 years ago (McGreevy, Nora). Several parts of his body have been studied, including attempts at DNA testing of samples collected from his femur and the base of his skull.The contents of his stomach revealed that his last meal was of porridge and fish (McGreevy, Nora).
All of these details can be known about bodies like the Tollund Man’s, but the question is, should we be invading his resting body to find them out? Information about his environment and living habits is invaluable when collected, to better understand the culture and world that he lived in so long ago, but is that enough? Did those who placed him in his resting place imagine that he would be on display in a museum for over half a century now? The ethics of unearthing and displaying human remains are quite complicated, as with any case where burial is involved.
McGreevy, Nora. July 22, 2021“What Did Tollund Man, One of Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies, Eat before He Died?” Smithsonian.com
Kuiper, Kathleen. “9 Noteworthy Bog Bodies (and What They Tell Us).” Encyclopædia Britannica.
Guerra-Doce, E., C. Rihuete-Herrada, R. Micó, R. Risch, V. Lull, and H. M. Niemeyer. April 6, 2023. “Direct Evidence of the Use of Multiple Drugs in Bronze Age Menorca (Western Mediterranean) from Human Hair Analysis.” Nature News.
Magazine, Smithsonian. May 1, 2017. “Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets.” Smithsonian.com.
“Moss Magic – Sphagnum Preservation.” Moesgaard Museum. Accessed October 1, 2023.