Of all the ways one might leave this vale of tears, “getting ritually murdered and thrown into a damn bog” ranks as one of the absolute worst. Yet, as Smithsonian Magazine tells us, it’s also a pretty surefire way to ensure your immortality as an object of study for generations of future archaeologists. This sweeping article by Joshua Levine covers the surprisingly compelling history of “bog bodies,” the name given to finely-preserved Bronze and Iron Age corpses enclosed in sphagnum moss, which the piece describes as nature’s “refrigerator.”
One thing many bog bodies have in common, besides having been swallowed by Northern European peat bogs, is that they appear to have died extremely hard:
The Bronze and Iron Age communities from which they come had no written language. There’s one thing we do know about them, because it is written on their flesh. Nearly all appear to have been killed, many with such savagery that it lends an air of grim purposefulness to their deaths. They’ve been strangled, hanged, stabbed, sliced and clobbered on the head. Some victims may have been murdered more than once in several different ways. Scholars have come to call this overkilling, and it understandably provokes no end of speculation.
But not all bog bodies are alike. At least one museum curator has challenged the older, very metal conjectures about how England’s Lindow Man was mega-killed:
[Lindow Man] was just 25 or so when he died, and he died a particularly horrible death. “One of the doctors who examined him originally found he had been kneed in the back to bring him to his knees, garroted, had his throat slit, his neck broken, got bashed in the head and was left to drown in the bog,” says Farley. “This is the so-called ‘triple death,’ and it’s the model that’s been taken forward.”
Farley isn’t so sure, and she’s not the only one. First, the physical evidence is inconclusive. Farley thinks the sinew tied around Lindow Man’s neck could as easily be a necklace as a garrote. Moreover, some of Lindow Man’s “wounds” might have occurred after death from the crushing weight of peat moss over centuries….“For me, we’ve got to disentangle Lindow Man from that story,” says Farley. “There’s clearly something a bit weird happening in Cheshire in the early Roman period. But we can’t say whether these people are being executed, whether they’ve been murdered, whether they’ve been brought there and disposed of, or ritually killed for religious reasons. However it turns out, they’re not part of the same picture as the Danish bog bodies.”
The real charm of this story is the way it winds through the history of bog body study, from Tacitus to 19th-century Danish historians to the marvelously named Professor P.V. Glob in the 1960s. The author of the classic study The Bog People (“to the bighearted Glob, they were people, not bodies”), Glob advanced an influential theory that the “winter gruel” found in the Iron Age Tollund Man’s stomach meant his sacrifice was intended to “hasten the coming of spring.”
Among many other fruitful detours (“St. Patrick tells us that sucking the king’s nipples was a rite of fealty”), the piece includes a memorable note about “bog butter.” Bog butter is what it sounds like:
Along with wooden and bronze vessels, weapons and other objects consecrated to the gods, there was also an edible waxy substance made out of dairy or meat. Just this past summer, a turf-cutter found a 22-pound hunk of bog butter in County Meath, Ireland. It is thought to be 2,000 years old, and while it smells pretty funky, this Iron Age comestible would apparently work just fine spread on 21st-century toast.
So the next time you come to a festering mire full of strange lights and mummified murder victims, keep in mind that any food you find there might still be good to eat.