Seeing the relaxed hand of a reclining man is nothing special … unless it’s 2,400 years old and on display in a glass museum case. This incredibly well-preserved hand, and the leathery-looking torso to which it’s attached belong to the Oldcroghan Man. Dated around 300 BCE, he’s one of the famous bog bodies on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
Even though slightly morbid, I find bog bodies fascinating. Unlike stone ruins and museum artifacts, bog bodies are a very human connection to our ancient past. These were people like us living day-to-day in an uncertain world who were unfortunate enough to end their days preserved for eternity in an Irish wetland.
Peat bogs are a natural lab for some weird chemical experiments. Their combination of cold, wet, acidic, and oxygen-free conditions not only stops decomposition, but make them the perfect place to preserve human skin, hair, and internal organs. The chemical process is complex, and as creepy as it sounds, bones are dissolved and the bodies are “tanned” – similar to the process used to create traditional animal-skin leather.
“Half earth, half water and open to the heavens, they were borderlands to the beyond. To these people, will-o’-the-wisps—flickering ghostly lights that recede when approached—weren’t the effects of swamp gas caused by rotting vegetation. They were fairies.” –Smithsonian Magazine
Much of what we know about bog bodies is based on educated guesses and scientific conjecture, and we may never have a clear understanding of who they were or why they ended up in a watery grave. But given their amazing state of preservation, these remains left behind clues about the people and life at the time.
It takes teams of trained scientists, but modern techniques and detailed analysis help to draw specific conclusions about the body: sex, age, health, diet, social status, and cause of death. Clonycavan Man’s perfectly preserved stomach contents indicated not only what he ate for his last meal, but the specific grains and seeds tells us what time of year he died. Also, his extraordinary hairstyle, held in place by gel made from a resin from France or Spain meant he was a high status person.
Twenty percent of Ireland is covered by bogs, and with its long history of harvesting peat for fuel, a number of discoveries have been made there. But wetland archaeologists have had success all over Northern Europe, and strangely, many of the bodies had a very violent death.
According to the museum exhibit placard, Clonycavan Man was “killed by a series of blows to the head, probably by an ax. He also suffered a 40cm-long cut to his abdomen suggesting disembowelment.”
Other bodies had been strangled, hanged, stabbed, and bashed on the head: a veritable murderers’ menu. In the professional community this gruesome savagery is called “overkill,” and it’s one of the greatest mysteries facing scientists. Why exactly were these Iron Age deaths so violent? Was it a harsh lesson for other criminals, a ritual sacrifice to appease the gods, or just brutal murder?
In our world wetlands are considered an essential component for maintaining a healthy environment. But obviously, in our ancient past bogs were powerful and mysterious places for very different reasons. And though we may never solve the mystery, it’s an intriguing part of our history, and the real human connection makes it even more meaningful.
Happy Trails and Good Health,
James and Terri