Europe’s morbid marshes: the secrets of ‘bog bodies’ unravelled

The Irish 'Gallagh Man' (left) and the Danish 'Porsmose Man' are two famous bog bodies that experienced gruesome endings. Image: Bullenwächter/Mark J Healey adapted from Wikimedia (All parts CC BY-SA)

An international team of archaeologists uncovered that so-called ‘bog bodies’ were part of a deep-rooted tradition in Europe, that spanned millennia. The researchers analysed over 1,000 ancient human remains found in Europe’s wetlands, also known as ‘bog bodies’. Interesting detail: when the archaeologist could determine the cause of death, most of the individuals had met a violent end. “A fascinating new picture emerges.”

The Tollund Man photographed in 1931 Image: Public Domain

Because bog contains very little oxygen, organic materials like wood, leather, textiles, and even, in some cases, human flesh does not rot. That is why human remains can turn up in extremely well-preserved conditions. This allows researchers to reconstruct details from millennia ago, such as people’s diets and even the cause of death of some individuals. A few examples are the strangled Gallagh Man from Ireland and the Porsmose Man from Denmark (found with an arrow head in his nose). The Danish Tollund Man is one of the most famous finds, given the excellent preservation of his facial features.

Incomplete picture

But precisely these famous finds, created problems for archaeologists, explains Doctor Roy van Beek, one of the researchers involved from Wageningen University. “The study shows that the heavy emphasis of past archaeological research on a small group of spectacular bog mummies has distorted our views.”

Distribution of different preservation of human remains around Northern Europe. Image: The Authors – Antiquity/Cambridge University Press (CC BY 4.0)

To get a more complete overview, Van Beek and his team divided the analysed bog bodies into three main categories: “bog mummies” the famous bodies with preserved skin, soft tissue, and hair; “bog skeletons” complete bodies, of which only the bones have been preserved; and the partial remains of either bog mummies or skeletons. The different types of bodies are mainly the result of varying preservation conditions: some bogs are better suited to preserving human tissue, while others preserve bone better.

“All three categories yield precious information, and by combining them a whole new picture emerges”, Van Beek points out. That’s why the study concludes that different kinds of bog bodies are probably part of a millennia-long, deep-rooted European tradition. The phenomenon started in southern Scandinavia during the Neolithic era, around 5000 BC, and gradually spread over Northern Europe. The youngest discoveries from Ireland, the UK and Germany, suggest that the tradition was still in use well into the Middle Ages and early modern times.

Hotspot in the bog

The team also discovered that there are specific ‘bog body hotspots’. These are wetlands where multiple human remains have been found. These can either stem from a single event, like a mass burial of battle, while other bogs were used frequently over a longer period of time. The marks of violence suggest that the individuals were part of a ritualistic sacrifice, executed criminals, or victims of violence.

“This shows that we should not look for a single explanation for all finds”, Van Beek argues. “Accidental deaths and suicides may also have been more common in earlier periods.”

All in all, the fascinating new picture that emerges is one of an age-old, diverse and complex phenomenon

Dr. Roy van Beek

In the case of ritual offerings, a wide range of other objects such as animal bones, bronze weapons or ornaments were found alongside the remains. Those ‘hotspot bogs’ are regarded as cult places, with a central place in the belief system of local communities.

“All in all, the fascinating new picture that emerges is one of an age-old, diverse and complex phenomenon, that tells multiple stories about major human themes like violence, religion and tragic losses”, concludes Van Beek.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.