I stood in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin a few months ago, gazing through a thin sheet of plexi at a man. He had laugh lines by his eyes. I could imagine quite easily what his face looked like when he smiled. I saw his eyebrows, his facial stubble, the delicate folds of his ear. He was taller than I expected. His hands were strong, like he had worked hard all of his life. I could also see the places his body had been pinned down. Was he dead before he went into the bog? Probably. I hope so. There is no way to know why he was left there. Did he commit some atrocity that his community could not abide? Was he killed in a tragic accident and left as a post-mortem sacrifice? Did he volunteer to go to his death in the bog, as atonement, or out of sorrow or fervent spiritual belief? Was he a challenger to a position of prestige, killed to make way for another leader? In a body that is so perfectly preserved, there is a great deal of tantalizing information, which leads to even more impossible questions. Who was this man, how did he live and die, and why was he placed in the bog?
Peat bogs of northwestern Europe have been the place of last repose for hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies, for over 10,000 years. The first reported discoveries of these bodies were in the 1700s.
The bodies themselves are widely dated, from 8000 B.C. (Koelbjerg Woman of Denmark), to the medieval period. Most, however, date to the Iron Age (ca. 500 B.C.–A.D. 100). During this period, bogs were sacred to the people living there, who used them for religious rituals, such as dedications, offerings, and sacrifices.
Most are fragmented, some consisting of just a few bones or body parts. Few are nearly intact, perhaps 20 in the world. Historically the found bodies were not well cared for, damaged during extraction, left to rot in improperly controlled museum storage, or worse.
Those bodies which did survive, though, are remarkable and fascinating. These bodies have skin and hair and are so well preserved they could have died recently. Perhaps it is because they appear to be so close to life that we give them names, such as Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and Yde Girl.
People cutting peat have generally been the discoverers of the bodies in the bogs. However, now that machinery has taken over this work, new discoveries are rare. The machines destroy the remains as the peat is quickly removed. Research on bog bodies now focuses on learning all that can be learned from the bog bodies already found. New technologies have been helpful in that. For example, damage to the bodies previously considered to be results of torture or violent execution were often, it is now understood, results of more natural causes such as the weight of the peat on the remains over millennia.
Back to Dublin, and my visit with the fellows under glass there. The Irish bog bodies have some interesting features, and the story they tell is one of a possible struggle for dominance. Within an exhibit entitled Kingship and Sacrifice, these found fellows are given context, history, and a new theory as to who they were, and why they were there. (In the bog, that is, not in the museum.)
The theory proposed, and there seems sufficient evidence to believe the argument here, is that Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man were contenders for, or defenders of, a throne, but were either defeated or removed from standing in another’s way. Their bodies were mutilated in such manners as to make them incapable of reigning according to the tradition of their time, and their bodies placed in the bog.
This all shines a very different light on just who the bog bodies we have collected over the centuries may have been. Perhaps not all innocent victims of religious right, but rather pawns in political intrigue.