The gruesome remains of prehistoric murder victims uncovered in Europe’s bogs

The remarkably preserved remains of prehistoric men, women and children have, since the 19th century, periodically been discovered in the bogs of northern Europe. Mutilated, and often naked, that their deaths were deliberate and due to a third party is beyond doubt

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Who were these people, and why were they killed? In her new book, Bog Bodies Uncovered, Miranda Aldhouse-Green investigates…

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It began as just an ordinary day in May 1897 for two peat cutters working near Yde in the northern Netherlands. Imagine their horror, as they dug into the soft peat, when their spades uncovered the twisted and discoloured remains of a human being. As soon as they saw this frightful apparition, the two men fled in terror, shouting that they had found the devil.

The human remains turned out to be those of a young girl, who had been wounded in the throat, strangled with her own girdle, and placed naked in the peat bog, an old coat covering her body. On one side of her head were long, reddish blonde tresses, but on the other, her hair had been savagely yanked out of the scalp.

At first, the body was thought to belong to a modern murder victim, but modern forensic analysis indicates that the girl died in the first century AD. She was about 16 years old when she met her death, but she was no ordinary adolescent: a study of her skeleton revealed that she had suffered from severe idiopathic scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which would have stunted her growth and caused her to walk with a painful lurching gait.

Study of the Yde girl offers a portal into the world of bog bodies because so many details surrounding her demise chime with other discoveries. Ancient bog people are found in regions of northern Europe with extensive raised bogs: Ireland, north-west England, the Netherlands, northern Germany and Denmark.

People have been deliberately deposited in bogs for millennia, at least from the Mesolithic to early modern times. But the ones discussed in my book, Bog Bodies Uncovered, nearly all belong to the Iron Age, from 500 BC to the first few centuries AD. Like the Yde girl, these people met violent, sometimes ‘multiple’ deaths (receiving more than one fatal injury); they were often pubertal; many had suffered from congenital and highly visible disabilities, usually associated with mobility; and most were naked when they went into the swamp.

The other factor that links all these bodies was the mode of their discovery. The vast majority of bog bodies found between the 19th and early 21st centuries were discovered accidentally by peat harvesters. The early finds did not benefit from the sophisticated forensic and preservative techniques available today – but paradoxically, the peat-cutters who used pre-industrial techniques, such as hand-held spades, did less damage to the human remains upon which they stumbled during their work than those operating great digging machines.

Given that Iron Age bog victims were violently killed, the constant question hovering over them is the reason for their deaths. Indeed, it is necessary to treat the discovery of any bog body in terms of a crime scene investigation, and that approach forms the kernel of Bog Bodies Uncovered. In a modern murder, all possible information is gleaned from the body itself, to establish identity and cause of death, the nature of the weapon used, and the personal history of the victim, together with the identity of the killer. The same is true of ancient bodies. What makes the bog people special is that the wet and mossy environment of their last resting place allowed not only the skeleton but the soft tissue – including skin, innards and the brain – to remain virtually intact. Hair, finger and toenails survive, and it is even possible to take the victim’s fingerprints.

The active preservative agent in the bog is sphagnum, a form of moss that grows in these swampy environments. Alas, though, the bog acids make it virtually impossible – at present anyway – to extract DNA evidence from the bodies.

Other stories of bog people are equally spectacular. Two adolescents from north German bogs had strong resemblances to the Yde find. One was found Windeby in Schleswig-Holstein: up until recently thought to be female, recent forensic examination has revealed it as the body of a boy, of similar age to the Yde girl. His bones showed that he had suffered from malnutrition and stunted growth; he probably drowned, but the presence of a woollen girdle around the lower part of his face suggests it may have been used to strangle him.

Another boy, from a bog in Kayhausen in Lower Saxony, was killed by being stabbed several times in the throat – but his body had also been hog-tied in a horrific manner, so that if he struggled, the bonds around his hands would tighten the noose around his neck. Study of the child’s pathology indicated that he had suffered a deformed hip that would have caused him severe mobility problems.  

The most important find from England is the so-called ‘Lindow man’. The first portion of his remains were discovered in August 1984 during peat harvesting at Lindow Moss in Cheshire. He was a young man, around 20–25 years old, when he was stripped naked (except for an armlet made of fox-fur), bludgeoned about the head and garrotted with a sinew cord. His throat was also cut.

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Lindow Man, British Museum, London. © Mathew Lodge/lodgephoto.com/Alamy Stock Photo

The man’s death was carefully orchestrated to extract the maximum pain, terror and public drama. His body was kneed in the back so that it fell face-down into the marsh pool: it is even possible that he was still just alive then, for traces of bog-water were found in his respiratory tract. Why the ‘triple-fold’ killing? In Ireland, too, Iron Age bog-bodies show signs of excessive violence, some of which was post-mortem. The bodies of two young men, who both died in around 300 BC, were discovered in Cos Offaly and Meath 2003. They had met savagely violent ends and their dead bodies had been mutilated. Old Croghan Man was huge, more than 6ft 6” tall and of stocky build; Clonycavan Man was slight, but the expensive foreign gel used to dress his hair suggests that he was of his high status.  

Many bog-bodies show signs of having consumed strange ‘last suppers’ just before their deaths. Lindow Man had eaten a strange kind of ‘famine’ bread made up of many different seeds and cereal grains but also including mistletoe which, according to the Roman writer Pliny, was associated with druidic ritual. Meanwhile, findings suggest Old Croghan’s regular diet had been rich in meat, but his last meal was entirely vegetarian.

The same is true of several Iron Age bog people from Denmark, including Tollund Man, who was hanged, and Grauballe Man, who bled to death from a savagely slashed throat. Moreover, this last victim consumed quantities of a strong toxin, ergot, presumably added deliberately to his final meal.

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The serene face of Tollund Man. The stubble on his chin and the noose that throttled him are clearly visible. He looks as if he has just fallen asleep. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)

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Tollund Man’s head. (Credit: Museum Silkeborg)

So who were these bog-people? Who killed them and why? That their deaths were deliberate and due to a third party is beyond doubt. So we are dealing with murder, execution or ritual practice. Given the mass of evidence for abnormal treatment of these victims – the strange food, the extreme violence and the nakedness, to name but three elements – it is likely that these people died in human sacrifice.

There is abundant literary testimony to human sacrifice in late Iron Age Britain and western Europe, albeit written by foreigners from the classical world. But there is also an assemblage of archaeological evidence from non-bog contexts that supports the occasional practice of sacrificial murder. The precise reasons for such extreme rituals evade us, but it is likely to have occurred at times when communities were under severe stress, such as famine, disease in livestock or human populations, or the threat (or reality) of warfare.

Indeed, it may be that particular victims were selected in order to avert particular crises. So, for instance, an adolescent girl or boy might have been chosen at a time of crop failure or diminished fertility in domestic animals precisely because of their pubertal status, their undissipated and potentially vigorous sexual and reproduction potential.

The disabilities noted in some young victims may have marked them out as special, maybe even blessed by the gods and thus perceived as valuable gifts. On the other hand, the choice of young men, in the prime of their working and fighting lives, might relate to their seeming appropriateness as victims in a war situation, either to avert conflict or to ensure that the gods were on side for victory.

I have a theory that Lindow Man may have died within the context of a specific and crucial event in Britain’s past, namely the Romans’ decision to annihilate the great centre of druidism on the Isle of Anglesey in AD 60 [druids were members of the educated, professional class among the Celtic peoples of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and possibly elsewhere during the Iron Age]. The reason for this thought relates to the location of his deposition. Lindow Moss in Cheshire lies along the route likely to have been taken by the Roman governor Suetonius Paullinus and his legions when they marched from south-east England to Anglesey. Was it possible that Lindow Man was sacrificed where he was in a last desperate – and sadly unsuccessful – attempt to prevent the druids’ holy of holies from being destroyed?

Were the druids, the central players in Britain’s last fight for independence from Rome, involved in his killing? Does the mistletoe in the bog man’s gut provide a clue to the mystery?

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Miranda Aldhouse-Green is Emeritus professor of archaeology at Cardiff University. Her book, Bog Bodies Uncovered, is published by Thames and Hudson (September 2015).To find out more, click here.