Body bags baffle

have long tried to make sense out of one of the oddities of the archaeological
world —bodies pulled from ignominius burials in cold water bogs everywhere
from Ireland to Russia.

Hundreds of these bog bodies have been found over the past two
centuries. But who were they and why were they dispatched to the great beyond
in mucky swamps? The theories range from executed deserters, to witches to
everyday people.

The Irish Countess of Moira back in 1783 launched scholarly explorations
by suggesting that bog bodies were victims of Druid ceremonies. Others, citing the ancient Roman
Tacitus, quickly saw them most likely as executed
deserters. Arguments over individual finds have continued ever since the first
look that year by the Countess at the Northern Ireland “Drumkeeragh”
bog body
, a woman dressed in wool clothes.

“Unfortunately the focus has been almost exclusively on the most
spectacular finds, the mummified bodies,” says archaeologist Moten Ravn of Denmark‘s Viking Ship
in Roskilde, writing in the current Acta
journal. Rather than arguing from just one body, Ravn
suggests a survey of all the bodies might offer better clues to how they ended
up buried in bogs.

What is a bog and how does it preserve anything? Cold-weather
swamps, basically
, where mosses turn waters brown. Roughly 560 bog
bodies have turned up in Denmark alone, Ravn notes, usually discovered when
farmers try to turn wetlands into farmland. His survey focuses on 145 bog
bodies dating to the early Iron and late Bronze Age, roughly 500 BC to 100 BC, the pre-Roman era
in northern Europe.

Acids found in bog waters have mummified some of the bodies, or more accurately
tanned them into leather. Mosses release chemicals that leach calcium from the
bodies, “which means that the bones of the bog bodies take on the
consistency of rubber,” Ravn writes. Other bogs rich in lime have preserved
other bodies only as bones.

Scholars have raced up and down the human pecking order in ascribing identities
to the bodies. The historian Niels Petersen in 1835 decided that the “Haraldskaer”
woman’s body found at the site of a copper factory belonged to the Norwegian Queen Gunhilde, drowned by King Harald Blatund
in the Ninth Century. By 1907, archaeologist Johanna
Mestorf became convinced they were all executed criminals, noting many of the
bodies were bound and naked.

Shades ofRaiders of the Lost Ark,
Nazi archaeologists dominated bog body research starting in the 1930’s until
the end of the Third Reich, Ravn notes, “interested in proving that the
so-called Nordic race were direct descendants of the proto-Germanic race,”
dating back to the Bronze Age.

All of these ideas have problems, starting with Queen Gunhilde, who was
unlikely to have been buried in leather scraps, as she was found. Also a 2004 Journal
of Archaeological Science
study notes that carbon dating finds the “Haraldskaer”
bog body was actually 2,500 years old, not in King Bluetooth’s

As for executed criminals, Ravn notes there are only 21 Danish cases
where the bodies have demonstrably been restrained, which, “may be a
general protection against ghosts and not something reserved for
criminals,” he writes. About 34% of the Bronze and Iron Age bodies in his
sample are clothed, and clothing may not endure in bogs as well as flesh does,
explaining its absence. A 2009 study, also in the Journal of Archaeological
led by Ulla Mannering of the University of Copenhagen, reports 44
instances of bog bodies found with clothes in Denmark, most dating to the Roman

The Nazi theory is just crackers, of course, with even their own
archaeologists pointing out bog bodies turned up in Ireland and elsewhere, even
as far south as Crete, far outside any “proto-Germanic” home.

Instead, “most archaeologists today support the sacrifice
theory,” Ravn writes. Proposed in the 1950’s, the basic idea is that bog
bodies were mostly offerings to the Nordic gods Odin
or Nerthus
(“Mother Earth”), with the rest either murder or accident victims.
People were mostly cremated in the era, a point which suggests a bog burial
must have been a special event.

An alternative is the idea proposed in 2002 by historian Allen Lund that
the bog bodies belonged to witches. Ancient people knew about the preserving
nature of bogs and sought to suspend their supernatural foes in a state between
life and death to forestall being haunted by them.

Ravn proposes a new theory to explain some of the bog bodies — maybe
they were just people who died of natural causes and were sent to their burial
in the bogs by their relatives. There is nothing special about the range of 145
people in his survey, men, women, young and old. Some were clearly placed in
excavated holes lined with bark and cotton, buried with glass beads or gold
jewelry in their mouths, a Roman custom. In Celtic myths, bogs and lakes were
places of healing, Ravn suggests. “Is it possible that there was a wish to
pass on these healing characteristics of the bog to a person who died a natural
death so that the deceased could arrive healthy in the realm of the dead,”
he asks.

Overall, bog bodies are “not so easy to explain,” Ravn says.
The oldest one, the Koelbjerg woman, dates to 10,000 years ago. Others date to
modern times, such as Johann Spieker, a hawker (person who used trained falcons to hunt),
who died in 1828. “The reason that people were given their final resting
place in the bog was not because of any one single tradition or one single ritual,”
Ravn concludes. “Some were due to accidents and others to murder. Some may
have been sacrificed and others may have died of natural causes and were buried
in the bog.”