What are bog bodies?

Dr Melanie Giles, author of Bog Bodies: Face To Face With The Past, gives a brief introduction to the amazingly well-preserved prehistoric and early historic human remains that have been discovered in wetlands across north-western Europe

A statue of Tollund Man, a bog body from the Iron Age. (Photo by Getty Images)

Bog bodies are naturally preserved human remains that are found in peaty wetlands, particularly in places that we call raised bogs. They are places where sphagnum moss creates deep layers of peat that react in complex ways to form acids that preserve anything organic that enters their clutches. These bogs were growing throughout prehistory, when they began to really radically transform our landscape.

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Prehistoric populations would put things in bogs; sometimes this would be cauldrons or weapons or animal offerings, but sometimes this would be human beings. Archaeologists who’ve been finding these remains for hundreds of years have puzzled as to why people were ending up in the bogs. Some of them undoubtedly were accidents. But some of them might even have been the result of murders.

In the Iron Age in particular, we know from the violence on many of these bog bodies that they were deliberately put to death. Some of them may have been executions and punishments for people who’d transgressed rules in society. But some of them, who seem to come really from the higher ranks of these communities, may well have been illustrious offerings that you made to whatever gods or deities you thought dwelled within these places.


Listen: Dr Melanie Giles unravels some of the mysteries around amazingly preserved human remains found in bogs – and reveals what we can learn from them


We know some of them also date to times later than prehistory, such as the Roman period. These would have been times of crisis, political change and social unrest, which might help explain why some communities asked their best and finest to take that next step into the other world and act as emissaries or intermediaries with the gods at times when nothing else had seemed to work.

Bog bodies are marvellous for archaeologists because they preserve flesh, tissue and clothing. And hidden within those elements are stories that we can unfold about the lives people have led before they ended up in the bogs.

They’re also very powerful phenomenon to encounter. They make quite gripping exhibits in museums – and curators have thought long and hard about whether to display them and how.

I think bog bodies have a wonderful power over the cultural imagination. They can inspire us. They can make us puzzle about how different humanity was in the past, and consider the issues and problems our ancestors faced.

In today’s world, bog bodies also make us think long and hard about our relationship with bogs and wetlands more generally: places that we now need to care for more as we look to them as part of our solution to climate change. So the past can be used not only as a lens onto very different kinds of worlds, beliefs and types of humanity, but prompts to get us to care a little bit more for these places in the future.

Dr Melanie Giles is the author of Bog Bodies: Face To Face With The Past

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Listen to our full interview with Melanie Giles on the HistoryExtra podcast