Brutality of prehistoric life revealed by Europe’s bog corpses

Brutality of prehistoric life revealed by Europe’s bog corpses

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In 1984, a peat cutter discovered human remains on a moor in Cheshire, England. They belonged to a man who died a brutal death some 2,100 years ago before being taken to the moor – examination of his well-preserved mummy revealed blows to the head, a possible stab wound and a broken neck. Twisted string found still wrapped there may also have been a garrote around his neck.

The remains of the Lindow man, now in the British Museum in London, are perhaps the best known of the 2,000 or so “swamp bodies” in Europe. These are mummies and skeletons found in the peat and wetlands of Ireland, UK, Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Often exquisitely preserved by the cool, acidic conditions and organic compounds of the bogs, the corpses offer an exciting snapshot of the past. Archaeologists examine their skin, bones, clothing, belongings and sometimes even their last meal. Now researchers have conducted the first comprehensive study of bog bodies – a burial tradition they believe stretches back 7,000 years – to get a more complete picture of the phenomenon.

These are the fossilized remains of the Lindow Man in the British Museum.

“We shouldn’t just focus on a few spectacular finds. As archaeologists, it’s sometimes really important to zoom out,” said Roy van Beek, assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and co-author of the study.

“Sometimes you really have to be careful not to jump to conclusions or jump to conclusions based only on a very limited number of websites.”

Van Beek and his colleagues collated data on 1,000 bog bodies found in 266 different locations, unveiling intriguing results published this week in Antiquity magazine.

While bogs can be treacherous places that are easy to get lost in, meaning some bog bodies are likely those of people who died accidentally, the team found that many deaths were premeditated and brutal, with bodies found after dumped to death or placed in moors.

“In many cases, it is no coincidence that these people ended up in these swamps. Violence comes into play too often,” said van Beek.

The team was able to determine the cause of death in 57 people, and violence was involved in 45 cases. Most violent deaths occurred in two periods: from 5200 B.C. to 2800 BC and 1000 BC. to 1100 AD

Porsmose Man died a violent death.  Bone arrowheads were found embedded in his skull and sternum.

Bone arrowheads have been found embedded in the skull and sternum of Porsmosis Man, a bog body found in Denmark. Similarly, Tollund Man, also found in a Danish peat bog, was hanged. Some historians believe it may have been a human sacrifice.

“People have always tended to interpret most of these as ritual sacrifices – that people were killed intentionally as offerings to higher powers,” explained van Beek.

There were ritual acts of violence and human sacrifice, van Beek said said there were probably many other explanations for how the bodies ended up in the swamps.

“They could have been robbed and killed in some kind of conflict. Another category might have been people who crossed some kind of social boundary – maybe it was criminals who were executed or people who committed suicide or adultery.”

The Neolithic Raspberry Girl or Hallonflickan got her name because many raspberry seeds were found near her stomach - evidence of her last meal.

The study divided bog bodies into three categories: bog mummies, the most famous finds, unearthed with their skin, soft tissue, and hair intact; bog skeletons, complete bodies but only bones preserved; and partial remains of either bog mummies or skeletons.

Bog mummies are typically found in raised bogs—discrete wet patches of land several feet higher than the surrounding area, rather than sprawling bogs covering large areas. Organic components in plants, such as peat moss, found in naturally acidic peat bogs can sustain human tissue. In more alkaline wetlands, such as bogs, only the bone remains.

“Human tissue survival also depends on how quickly a body is immersed in water, temperature and season, and the presence of insects and internal microorganisms,” the study states.

Research into the three types of bog corpses found that burying bodies in bogs was a deep-rooted tradition that stretched back thousands of years. The phenomenon appears to have originated in southern Scandinavia around 7,000 years ago and gradually spread across northern Europe.

Recent finds from Ireland and Scotland show the tradition carried on into the Middle Ages and early modern times. The Iron Age and the Roman Age, from 1200 B.C. to about 500 AD, were generally considered to be the pinnacle of the bog corpse phenomenon.

While most locations showed only one body, it was not uncommon to find bog body hotspots where the remains of several people were discovered, sometimes along with valuable items. One exceptional site is Alken Enge near Skanderborg, Denmark, where more than 380 people were killed in violent conflict and dumped in wetlands along with weapons almost 2,000 years ago.

“These bogs and bogs are well known for their natural characteristics … and high biodiversity. They are places where special plants and animals (live) and they are very important carbon stocks that protect against climate change,” said van Beek.

“But if you look at this type of research, we can say that they are also extremely valuable cultural archives that provide really high-quality evidence about human behavior for millennia.”

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