The Bog Bodies of Iron Age Europe

by Hannah Rigel n



Bogged Down: How Were the Bog Bodies Preserved?
Bog Bodies: Who Were They?
Mind Boggling: Why Were They Killed and Put into the Bogs?


Bogged Down: How Were the Bog Bodies Preserved?

Locations of Some Bog Bodies In Europe
Bog bodies have been found in many locations in northwestern Europe: mostly in Ireland, England, Germany, and Denmark. Generally, these countries have poor preservation conditions, but the bogs are an exception to the rule.

Growing across the surface of the bogs, peat moss creates humic acid as it decomposes, which works to preserve organic material that would normally rot away. However, according to a website by the Silkeborg Museum, for the acid to be able to preserve them, the bodies must have been submerged at a time when the bog water was about 4 degrees Celsius or less, which inhibits the growth of bacteria ("Why are Bog Bodies Preserved"). Bogs are usually anoxic environments, which also works to create an inhospitable environment for microbes. On a more scientific note, some studies have found that peat moss absorbs almost all of the nutrients in the rain and runoff that feed the bogs. Thus, while the moss thrives, most bacteria find it impossible to survive. Furthermore, any microorganisms that do exist in the water are unable to feed on any of the dead moss or the occasional bog body because the moss releases a substance that deactivates the bacteria’s digestive enzymes (Briggs and Crowther 321-325). All of these factors contribute to the preservation of bog bodies, allowing archaeologists to examine the physical features, clothing, and sometimes even the brains and stomach contents of people over 2000 years old.
(From "Peat Bogs Should be Preserved" by Matthew Sparkes at

<<< This photo shows a bog with piles of harvested peat bricks that will be dried out and then used either for fuel or for gardening supplies (Chamberlain and Pearson 52 ). In the past, most bog bodies have been discovered by people gathering peat.

To learn more about the preservation and discovery of one bog body, the Tollund Man, watch the short video History's Mysteries: Natural Mummies - Bog Bodies from However, the scholar that explains why this body was preserved in the bog, James Deem, is introduced only as an author and historian, not a scientist with experience in this area, so the information that he provides ought to be verified with more proficient sources. One better qualified personage would be the director of the Silkeborg Museum, where the Tollund Man is now located, and who explains the preservation process in the video below.

⇧ In this short clip Christian Fischer, the director of the Silkeborg Museum, explains the preservation process. The actual explanation starts at time 1:30, since the clip begins by discussing the bog bodies' violent deaths and possible explanations for that violence.

Back to Top

Bog Bodies: Who Were They?

Tollund Man

Tollund Man (Photo by Robert Clark)

Discovered in a bog in Denmark, the Tollund man is one of the most well preserved bog bodies that has ever been found. Because of his excellent condition, he is also one of the most well examined bog bodies. The waterlogged environment had preserved his skin, the stubble on his chin, and even his last meal in his stomach, all of which have since been thoroughly inspected by scientists who were elated at the chance to gain a glimpse into the past.

According to the website of the Silkeborg Museum, where Tollund Man is now on display, he was found in a peat bog several kilometers west of Silkeborg in 1950 ("A Body Appears").

P.V. Glob, who was the anthropologist that first studied Tollund Man, vividly describes him as he lay in the peat, "The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression - the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man's soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky" (Glob 1). However, Tollund Man's death was anything but gentle, as the plaited line around his neck indicates. At first scholars wondered if he was actually hanged, or if the cord was just symbolic. After a visit to the forensic examiner, however, it was determined that the cause of death was, in fact, hanging ("Was").

Many other examinations and tests followed the autopsy, allowing scholars to ascertain that Tollund man had lived around 400-300 B.C. ("When").

Tollund Man's Alimentary Canal (From
Because Tollund Man is so well preserved, his examiners were also able to investigate his alimentary canal, in which they discovered the remains of many types of seeds. These included both domesticated grains, including barley and linseed, but also wild seeds like hemp-nettle, mustard, and violet. Apparently, his last meal had been a form of porridge or gruel made from the produce of surrounding farms, as well as some wild components that were inadvertently gathered in with the crops (Reid 82-83). And, although this may not have been the most appetizing cuisine, Tollund Man was certainly not malnourished. Since his meal was still in his system, it was obvious that he had eaten not too long before his death, and it was determined that he had ingested the plain repast about 12-24 hours before being hanged based on its level of digestion (Glob 12). Interestingly, although the Iron Age Europeans had many animal resources that could be exploited, no meat supplemented Tollund Man's porridge fare. It has been suggested that both the absence of meat and the fact that preservation necessitates cold bog water may indicate that Tollund Man was killed during the winter months ("The Last Meal").

Although he was found naked except for a cap, a belt, and the cordage around his neck, it is not necessarily assumed that he was placed into the bog in this condition. Certainly, it is possible that he was, but it is also quite possible that he was actually wearing clothing at the time of his immersion, and that they had rotted away because they were made of plant material, like flax. His garments could also have been set beside him, as is the case with some other bog bodies, and were somehow removed in the following years ("The Naked Body").

It was found that he had been put into a place where peat diggers had been at work, so it is possible that he was a sacrifice ("Why did He have to Die?"). See the section on Bog Body Theory for more on why he would have been put into the bog.

To read more about the Tollund Man, visit the Silkeborg Museum's website about him, which has a wealth of information. Also, Nova's Perfect Corpse website has an interactive image of him that is very interesting. He is mentioned in the History Channel's History's Mysteries: Natural Mummies - Bog Bodies video as well.

This clip shows the Tollund Man in his exhibit case at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark.

⇧ Along with some additional footage of Tollund Man, this video shows the director of the Silkeborg Museum,
Christian Fischer, who presents an interpretation of how and why this body was put in the bog.


Grauballe Man

Grauballe Man Still Partially Interred in Peat (From

Grauballe Man was also found in a bog near Silkeborg, Denmark in 1952, just two years later than Tollund Man ("Grauballe Man").

After being exhumed from the bog, Grauballe Man was transported to the newly built workshop at the Museum of Prehistory in Aarhus, Denmark (Glob 17 ). Years later radio-carbon dating tests were conducted and after the findings were adjusted to account for the 1956 nuclear explosions it was determined that Grauballe Man had lived in the early Iron-Age (Glob 33). He is now thought to have lived between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 ("Bog Bodies").

Although reclined in a somewhat less peaceful position than Tollund Man, he is equally, if not more well preserved. His hands and feet especially are in excellent condition, but his face has been smashed, so his countenance evokes notions of pain rather than sleep ("Grauballe Man").

The skewed expression is quite fitting, since Grauballe Man's cause of death was having his throat violently sliced open. Because of the depth and angle of the cuts, as well as the fact that it took multiple slices, it is obvious that this is not a suicide. His leg and skull had both been broken, but these injuries were most likely received after death. As might be expected, the condition of his head is most likely a result of the tremendous weight of the peat layers above him (Glob 22-23). After being killed he was placed into a contemporary peat excavation, possibly as a sacrifice ("The Grauballe Man"). See the bog body theory section for more information.

Pain was not new to this individual, since his teeth were in very poor condition, which meant that he had chronic toothaches. Although Grauballe Man was only around a little over thirty years of age, some teeth had already fallen out, while others (his wisdom teeth) had never come in. Adding to his pain, his spinal column was affected by arthritis even at his young age (Chamberlain and Pearson 63).

Like Tollund Man, he was naked when discovered. Although he could have been clothed in material made from plants that would have disintegrated in the bog, it is not likely. According to Professor Glob, who studied Grauballe Man extensively, the weight of the peat above him would have caused the cloth to leave impressions on his skin. Since no such impressions can be seen, it has been concluded that Grauballe Man was most likely naked at the time of his watery inhumation (Glob 18 ). However, it is also possible that his clothes had been put into the bog with him, but not on him, which would explain why they didn't leave marks on him ("Grauballe Man").

Grauballe Man (Click on photo for original context.)

Because of the amazingly fine preservation of Grauballe Man's hands and feet, it was decided that they would be given to the professional criminologists with the Aarhus police, who would be able to fingerprint him. Surprisingly, the patterns on his fingers were so clearly delineated that the scientists determined that he had not been used to much manual labor (Glob 24-25). This indicates that he was not a slave or captive, but a person probably of a somewhat elevated social position. To learn more about social structure and everyday life in Iron Age Europe, visit this page.

Although the condition of his fingers denoted a privileged existence, his last meal is quite unexciting. Grauballe Man's final fare consisted of gruel that was very similar to that of Tollund Man. Interestingly, in this porridge, over sixty different plant species were represented - many more than were seen in Tollund Man's simple repast (Glob 26). Found in Grauballe Man's alimentary canal along with the gruel, some small fragments of pig bones may demonstrate that meat was a part of his last meal ("The Grauballe Man").

To learn more about Grauballe Man, visit the Silkeborg Museum's page about him. P.V. Glob's book The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved is also an excellent resource, since Professor Glob spent years studying this body and is considered an authority on bog bodies in general. The chapter on Grauballe Man can be read below.


Elling Woman
Elling Woman (From

About twelve years before Tollund Man was discovered, another body had been pulled out of the bog. Sadly, its level of preservation was far lower than either Tollund Man or Grauballe Man, so scholars debated whether it was a man or woman, although they finally concluded it was the latter. Today she is called Elling Woman, and has been an object of close study because of her clothing and elaborate hairstyle ("Elling Woman").

At her time of death, she only about twenty-five, so she was younger than the two previous individuals from the area, who were killed in their mid-thirties. However, she did live near the same time as Tollund Man (approximately 300 B.C.) or perhaps a bit later than him. Either way, she was certainly an inhabitant of Iron Age Europe ("Elling Woman").

ike Tollund Man, Elling Woman's cause of death was hanging. Her slayer used a braided leather cord that looks just like the rope around Tollund Man's throat, and the indentation that it left in her neck can still be seen to this day ("Elling Woman").

After she had been hanged, she was laid into an excavation in the bog, just like Tollund Man andGrauballe Man. She was wearing a skin cloak and another one encircled her legs andfeet. These garments had been carefully created and were stitched with great skill ("Elling Woman").

As can be seen from the photo of her head to the right, a good bit of care and time had gone into Elling Woman's hairstyle as well. Her lengthy locks, which have been dyed red by the bog water, were intricately braided and had also been tied up in a knot on the day of her execution, possibly to keep them out of the way of the noose. An illustration of her braids can be seen to the left ("Elling Woman").

To learn more about Elling Woman, visit the Silkeborg Museum's page about her. Or, to learn more about women in Iron Age Europe, visit this page.


Huldremose Woman

Huldremose Woman (From

Also discovered in Denmark, Huldremose Woman was found in 1879. According to the Denmark National Museum, Huldremose woman lived in the 100s B.C. and was about forty years old when she died, which is a bit older than the previously discussed bog bodies ("The Woman").

Although the scholars at the Denmark National Museum are quite confident that Huldremose Woman did not just die of old age, they are also not sure of her cause of death. Her right arm appears to have sustained a deep cut wound, but this could have occurred after death or even while being dug up. Prior to her death, she had broken her leg, but this had been allowed to heal, although it left her with a limp. One possibly life-threatening piece of evidence, is the woolen rope that encircled Huldremose Woman's neck, which also secured her hair. Since this cord left nary a mark of strangulation on her neck, however, it has been speculated that the rope was only symbolic. So, although there are many clues to the mystery of Huldremose Woman's death, it remains a conundrum for the time being ("How did the Huldremose Woman Die?").

Huldremose Woman's Clothing (From
Well prepared for the cold winter, Huldremose Woman was wearing a plaid woolen skirt and scarf as well as two skin capes. Underneath her left arm, a bird bone fastener pinned the scarf in place. The inner cape had apparently had a long, hard life, since it was well worn and patched in numerous locations. Interestingly, it also had some supposed amulets sewn into it, which included a bone comb among other things ("The Huldremose Woman's Clothes").

To learn more about Huldremose Woman, visit the Denmark National Museum's page about her, which has an interactive image of her that allows the viewer to zoom in to see more detail. There are other pages with more information that can be reached through it as well. The video below also gives a quick overview of Huldremose Woman. Or, to read more about Iron Age women in Europe, which also mentions Huldremose Woman, go to this page.

⇧ This clip shows Flemming Kaul, a curator at the Denmark National Museum, as he provides a brief introduction to Huldremose Woman.


Windeby Boy

Windeby Boy (From

Not all bog bodies are found in Denmark, however. Windeby Boy, for example was discovered in Germany in 1952, when some men were digging up peat and heaving it onto a conveyer belt (Coles and Coles 189). Much of his torso has disintegrated, but his head, hands, and feet are still preserved.

Found completely unclothed, his only adornment, other than an ox-hide collar, was a strip of cloth tied around his head and positioned across his eyes. While he was laid on his back, his head faced sideways. The hair on part of his head was several centimeters in length, but some of it had been recently shaved off on another part of his scalp. Across his body lay some branches and beside him sat a large stone (Coles and Coles 189).

Radio-carbon dating techniques have indicated that Windeby Boy probably lived and died around A.D. 1-200 ("Bog Bodies"). As for his cause of death, the evidence that can be obtained from his body is inconclusive. However, archaeologists speculate that the branches and stone were probably positioned to hold him down in the bog, so he may have been drowned. There is no evidence of strangulation, so the cloth strip is interpreted as a blindfold, rather than an implement of hanging (Glob 74-75). Also, Windeby Boy was an altogether unhealthy individual. An examination of his slight frame indicated that he also often did not receive enough nourishment, so it is possible that he may just have died as a result of his ailments (Lange 2).
A Reconstruction of the Windeby Bog Body As a Girl (From

For years after this individual had been found at Windeby, scientists thought that he was a young girl in her mid-teens. However, a scholar from the North Dakota State University examined the body and conducted some DNA testing, and determined that it is probably that of a boy (Lange 2 ). So, while most sources will address this bog body as a girl, the most recent evidence says that it is actually a boy.

Just five yards distant from Windeby Boy’s location, an older male body (Windeby II) had been found, also in 1952. When Windeby Boy I was still thought to be a young girl, it was assumed by some that these two individuals had been caught in an adulterous affair and had been drowned as punishment for their immoral behavior ("Bog Bodies"). This idea had been based on Tacitus’ descriptions of barbarian practices, which included the shaving of adulteresses’ heads (Lange 2).

To learn more about Windeby Boy, read the section about him (although he is addressed as a she) in P.V. Glob's book The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved . However, those pages are not available through Google Books.


Yde Girl

Yde Girl (From

Yde Girl is a small bog body that was found in the Netherlands in 1897. Because of her frightful appearance, her peat digging discoverers thought that she was a product of Satan and covered her back up. After several days had gone by she was rediscovered by another individual who notified the Drents Museum in Assen, which was nearby. Although some parts of the body had been carried off by various villagers, most of it was recovered, and she was taken to the museum for study, where she is now on display (Prag and Neave 166).

A thorough examination was carried out. Scholars decided Yde Girl's small size was partially a result of her actually diminutive stature, but also partially a result of being dried out, which normally shrinks bog bodies. Radiocarbon tests were conducted and placed Yde Girl in the 100 B.C. to A.D. 100 range. Showing that she was indeed a female, CT scans also indicated that the body was only about 16 years old. Interestingly, x-rays demonstrated that Yde Girl's spinal column had a distinct curvature and her pelvis was skewed. Since her scoliosis was untreated, her form would have leant slightly to the left and she may also have walked with a limp, as evidenced by her twisted pelvis and crooked feet (Prag and Neave 167-169).

Similar to Huldremose Woman, Yde Girl was wearing clothes when she was buried, although most of them have disintegrated with time. Strangely, Yde Girl's hair had been completely shaved off the right half of her head, while the other half had been left untouched. This is presumably related to her death, perhaps as part of a ritual killing. (See the section on bog body theory for more information on why bog bodies were killed.) Yde Girl's cause of death was probably strangulation, since the cloth band around her neck had left a deep impression. She had also been stabbed in the throat, but there was no evidence of a struggle, and no defensive wounds on the arms. This may mean that she was a consenting victim, or that she was not fully conscious at her time of death (Prag and Neave 166-168).

Reconstruction of Yde Girl (From
Yde Girl's feet showed that she had owned a good pair of shoes, since they were in such good condition and had not been roughly utilized. This may mean that she was of higher status than the general population. (Prag and Neave 169).

To learn more about Yde Girl, an interesting resource is a book called Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence by two scientists who have worked on reconstructing faces from archaeological contexts all over the world. One of these faces was that of Yde Girl.


Lindow Man

Lindow Man (From

While the previous bog bodies were all located on mainland Europe, Lindow Man lived and died in England. Because of the aggressiveness of a peat-cutting machine, most of the body was discovered in 1984, while several additional pieces were found a few years later (Chamberlain and Pearson 67).

Lindow Man would have lived approximately between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 ("Bog Bodies of the Iron Age"). At the time of his death, Lindow Man was about 25 and he would have stood a little over 5 1/2 feet tall. His hair and beard had been cut with a pair of shears or scissors, which would have been rare tools during the Iron Age. Also, his hands and especially his fingernails show little wear, which means that he didn't participate in much hard manual work, at least for a while before his death. These two aspects of his body indicate that Lindow Man may have been a part of the upper class (Prag and Neave 159-160). The presence of a few grains of mistletoe pollen in his stomach have also led some archaeologists to believe that Lindow Man may have either been a druid, or part of a ritual conducted by druids, since mistletoe has often been associated with druidic practices (Chamberlain and Pearson 73).

Evidence of multiple injuries have been found on the body of Lindow Man. In effect, he was killed at least three times, receiving two heavy blows to the head, as well as being strangled and having his throat slit. Although the order in which these wounds were given is not known, it is obvious that his death was extremely violent, and would not have been quick and painless in any order (Chamberlain and Pearson 65-66 ). After being killed, Lindow Man was laid in the bog wearing only a band around his arm, which was made out of a fox pelt (Prag and Neave 161).

In addition to Lindow Man, who is called Lindow II by archaeologists, two other bog bodies (Lindow I and Lindow III) were unearthed nearby. Although only small parts these bodies have been found, they do provide some additional information about the reasons that these individuals were put into the bog. Lindow III, for example, had a vestigial sixth finger on one of his hands, which may have meant that he suffered the disdain of his society. Or perhaps he was revered for that physical abnormality. Archaeologists can only speculate on this conundrum (Chamberlain and Pearson 68).

During their lifetimes, the Lindow bog people were plagued by a couple different types of intestinal parasitic worms, and Lindow Man also suffered mildly from arthritis (Prag and Neave 159).

A Reconstruction of Lindow Man's Face (From
Although the Lindow people did not have any tattoos, some scientists thought that they may have had some sort of body decoration, so they tested the bog bodies' skin for some elements that were commonly used in body paints during the Iron Age. The results of the testing showed that high levels of copper, aluminum, and silica were present in their skin. From this, the scientists determined that these individuals probably used a paint that would have been bluish or greenish in appearance, because of the corroding copper. If this is the case, it would support the Roman accounts of the blue painted warriors of Britain (Chamberlain and Pearson 69).

To learn more about Lindow Man, one intriguing resource is the same book that was mentioned in the section about Yde Girl, called Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence by two scientists who work on reconstructing faces from archaeological contexts, which also talks about Lindow Man and the reconstruction of his facial features.


Clonycavan Man

Clonycavan Man (From National Geographic News courtesy of the BBC)

A surprisingly recent find, this intriguing individual was discovered in Ireland in 2003.

He was found completely naked, like many other bog bodies, and his lower half was missing, probably removed by the peat digging machine that uncovered him (Lange 1).

Standing at a height of only about 5 foot, 2 inches tall, Clonycavan Man may have felt a need to seem taller than he was, which is suggested by his raised hairstyle. An archaeologist on staff at the University of York has studied the material that Clonycavan Man used to stiffen his hair and has found that it was a mixture of vegetable oil and pine resin. The resin would have been gathered from trees that are located in Spain, as well as in the south of France, which indicates that there must have been some trade between Ireland and these areas in the Iron Age. In order to have access to resin from long-distance trade, one probably had to have a relatively high social standing, so Clonycavan Man was most likely a member of the upper class (Owen 2).

Radiocarbon dating tests have indicated that Clonycavan Man's life was spent sometime between 392 B.C. and 201 B.C. While his life was spent enjoying the luxuries of the time, his death was violent. Struck four times with a sharp axe, Clonycavan Man suffered three head injuries and one on his chest. As if that was not enough to end him, his killers also disemboweled him (Owen 2).

To learn more about Clonycavan Man, read Karen Lange's National Geographic article "Tales from the Bog," or the National Geographic News article "Murdered "Bog Men" Found With Hair Gel, Manicured Nails," which is about him and Oldcroghan Man. The video in the section about Olcroghan Man also has more information about him.


Oldcroghan Man

Old Croghan Man's Torso Beside Clonycavan Man

Only a few months after Clonycavan Man was unearthed, another body appeared in Ireland near Croghan hill, about 25 miles from Clonycavan's location (Lange 3).

All that is left of the body is arms and a torso. However, even from a partial body, much can be learned. This fellow was promptly dubbed Oldcroghan Man and, based on his enormous arm-span, his height would have been around six foot, four inches (Lange 3).

According to a National Geographic News article, Oldcroghan Man was radiocarbon dated at over 2000 years old from the time range between 362 B.C and 175 B.C. (Owen 1).

For all of his height and strength, Olcroghan Man couldn't save himself from a violent end. Although he tried to stop his killer, as the defensive wounds on his forearms suggest, his attacker's knife eventually did pierce him through the heart. Strangely, his nipples had also been sliced. Around one of his arms ran a plaited leather band, which included a piece of bronze with celtic designs on it (Lange 3). (To learn more about Celtic and other Iron Age art, see this page.)

Old Croghan Man's Arm Band (From the BBC News website)
Another interesting aspect of Olcroghan Man's body was that his arms had hazel wreaths stuck, not around, but through them, possibly as a means of keeping him underwater in the bog ("The Perfect Corpse").

Although one might expect this enormous figure to have done a lot of hard work in his daily routine, his hands show that quite the opposite was true. Since the extent of his injuries previous to his death were two miniscule cuts on his hands, and since his fingerprints very distinct, it is evident that Oldcroghan Man was probably not used to much hard labor. Interestingly, his hands were not only free from the signs of rough usage, they also indicated that he purposefully took great care of his hands. Isabella Mulhall, the head of the National Museum of Ireland's bog body research, stated that "He had very well manicured nails, and his fingertips and hands were indicative of somebody who didn't carry out any manual labor. So we presume he came from the upper echelons of society" (qtd. in Owen 1).

To learn more about Olcroghan Man, read the National Geographic News article about him called "Murdered "Bog Men" Found With Hair Gel, Manicured Nails." An interview with a curator at the National Museum of Ireland, Ned Kelly, who talks about Olcroghan Man can be found at the website of ABC's show, Catalyst. The video below also addresses both Olcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man.

n⇧ Although it is quite lengthy, this interesting video records the many examinations of both Olcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man. Theories about why these individuals were put into the bogs are also discussed.n


But Wait, There's More...

The Gundestrup Cauldron, Found in a Bog in Denmark (From

The bog bodies that were discussed on this page are only a few of over a thousand other finds. A list of forty bodies can be found in the article about radiocarbon dating which is discussed below, and short overviews of twelve individuals can be found in the "Bog Bodies of the Iron Age" on Nova's The Perfect Corpse website.

Additionally, bodies are not the only things that European Iron Age peoples put into bogs. Swords and shields, intricately decorated cauldrons, wooden figures, wagon parts, and objects made of precious metals, as well as many other forms of art or tools, have all been discovered in various bogs across Northwestern Europe. Animals were also included in some of these deposits. There are many views on why these objects were sunk in the bogs, but usually they are thought to be offerings to the gods of this region (Coles and Coles 191-195).

To read more about religion in Iron Age Europe, see this page. Or to learn more about the art of Iron Age Europe, visit this page.


Archaeological Methods

One of many archaeological methods used to study the bog bodies is radiocarbon dating. An overview of the dating process of forty different bog bodies can be read in an article from the Journal of Archaeological Science, which is called "Dating bog bodies by means of 14C-AMS." Written by four archaeologists, the article covers some bodies from the Iron Age, as well as others from more recent times. Beginning with a short history of dating bog bodies, the authors continue with an explanation of the actual dating and sample pretreatment methods. They then provide the data that were obtained and discuss the accuracy and precision of the dates that were calculated from the data. Since dates were obtained not only from the bog bodies themselves, but also from what they were wearing or from objects found in association with them, the authors also discuss the suitability of different types of materials for use in radiocarbon dating.

Back to Top

Mind Boggling: Why Were They Killed and Put into the Bogs?

Why were the bodies interred in these locations? What is the meaning behind the practice? Were they brutal murders? Ruthless executions of criminals? Or perhaps merciless sacrifices? Although unequivocal answers to these interesting inquiries elude us for the present, the archaeological materials encourage speculation. Theories abound as scholars attempt to explain why these individuals ended up in the peat. However, none of the evidence is conclusive, so it can be used to support differing hypotheses.

One thing to note before delving into the theories, is that throwing bodies in bogs was not a normal burial practice for Iron Age Europeans. This indicates that these few individuals were either connected by who they were or what they did, or by what their deaths were supposed to accomplish. More common practices during the Iron Age included cremating deceased individuals, and interring the dead in mound tombs. To learn more about mound tombs, visit this page on Celtic monuments, where the different types of mounds are discussed.

Since many bog bodies have been found in Northern Europe, especially in Denmark, it may be helpful to have an overview of the religious views behind their burial practices. An article called "Behind Heathendom: Archaeological Studies of Old Norse Religion," by Anders Andrén, lays out a somewhat lengthy, but very interesting discussion of Scandinavian religion, not only in the Iron Age, but in other times as well. However, the sections on the Iron Age practices are being focused on here. According to the author of this article, there was a great deal of variation among different types of burial practices, cremation being only one type, and also having many variations within that tradition (115-116). The article also mentions the fact that how an individual died was considered to be more important than how they were treated after death, since it would determine where he or she would reside in the afterlife, so the practice of putting people in bogs probably had some particular significance (116). When discussing the ritual practices of the Scandinavians, the author notes that "The traditional places for large-scale rites in Scandinavia were wetlands, bogs, and lakes" (129). While the bog bodies may not have been a part of "large-scale rites," it still implies that there was a special reason behind their deposition in bogs, a ritual that most people's deaths did not warrant.

Knowing that bog inhumation is not a normal burial method, an explanation for this peculiar practice must be developed to explain its significance. The main debate over the past few decades of bog body research has been between scholars who think the bodies were the remains of punished criminals, captives, or people who had engaged in sexual immorality, and other scholars who believe they were most likely ritual sacrifices.


The Punishment Hypothesis

As the prevailing hypothesis during the early portion of bog body research, the punishment explanation encouraged the aversion that bog body discoverers had often felt toward these gruesome finds, since it suggests that these individuals had been executed by their society as a punishment for heinous crimes or unacceptable sexual practices. Because the archaeological methods for examining bog bodies were quite limited during the first years of research, explanations had to be drawn from written records rather than from the bodies themselves, so this hypothesis was based on the many Roman accounts of Celtic and Germanic tribes.

Of the many records that survive today, Tacitus’ Germania, is probably used most often to support the punishment hypothesis. Describing the people of Northern Europe, this manuscript provides the Roman’s account of how this society’s barbaric practices were so different from those of the supposedly civilized Rome. Viewing them from his own perspective, Tacitus recorded both the punishments for different crimes and the supposed reasoning behind them (Reid 87).

Drawing by Niels Bach (From

"The mode of execution varies according to the offence.Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; cowards, shirkers, and sodomites are pressed down under a wicker hurdle into the slimy mud of a bog. This distinction is based on the idea that offenders against the state should be made a public example of, whereas deeds of shame should be buried out of men’s sight."
~ From Tacitus' Germania (qtd. in Reid 88)

As was previously stated, numerous bog bodies show evidence of hanging or strangulation, which seems to support this account. However, they were also put into bogs, so the reasons behind the different types of executions, as recorded by Tacitus, don’t exactly explain why they were both hung and interred in a bog. If a hanging was a way to create a public example, why would the body then be hidden immediately? Why not just leave it out for people to see?

Tacitus also records that one of several punishments for adulterous women was to have their hair shaved off, which seems to be supported in the fact that some of the female bog bodies have their hair laying next to their heads rather than attached to them, although the hair could have been cut off by shovels or peat-digging machines as the bodies were being dug up (Chamberlain and Pearson 79).

Because of its reliance on Roman records, the punishment hypothesis has some serious flaws. For example, as helpful as written records can be, at times they can also lead research in a wrong direction, because there is a worldview with a bias behind the words, which cannot always be perceived at the first reading. The Roman accounts project Roman culture onto the practices of an entirely different society, so we are left with a partially true, partially made up record (Reid 87). This is a crucial flaw in the concepts behind the punishment hypothesis. Also, Tacitus’ document was written a while after the Iron Age, so practices and ideologies could have changed (Chamberlain and Pearson 81).

Drawing on purely archaeological data, one aspect of the bog people that could possibly be used to support this hypothesis is the brutality that is evidenced by the wounds of most bog bodies. Many of these individuals met violent deaths, which would not be expected to have been bestowed on valued members of the community. If this was the case, then it seems likely that the individuals would have been criminals or other people that were not appreciated by the general public. The video that was used in the section on preservation began by noting the savage ends that were met by many of the bog people as well as the speculation that has arisen because of this apparent brutality.

Obviously, criminals would not be revered, but perhaps deformed individuals also were punished by the society, since they had also supposedly been punished by the gods. Many bog bodies show evidence of physical abnormalities, Yde girl being an obvious example with her curved spine and uneven gait. Others include Lindow III, who had a vestigial sixth finger, and a female bog body from Zweeloo, in the Netherlands, who suffered from a disorder that left her with normal sized upper arms and legs, but severely shortened lower arms (Chamberlain and Pearson 74). So perhaps the bog bodies were, indeed, religiously rejected individuals that needed to be punished for some reason or another. Of course, according to the opposing ritual killing hypothesis, rather than being thought of as rejected and punished by the gods, the deformed individuals were actually considered to have a unique connection with the gods. Supposedly, because of that association they were held in high honor, and were privileged to be able to participate in the religious ceremonies (Chamberlain and Pearson 75). Both of these explanations are based entirely on speculation, so neither should be entirely accepted, but it is interesting to note the fact that a large proportion of the bog bodies did have some type of physical deformity.

All in all, the punishment theory seems to apply better to bog bodies from medieval times, rather than those of the Iron Age, since some of the medieval individuals had suffered terrible tortures like being flayed and scalped or being rolled around in a barrel with nails stuck into it (Coles and Coles 179). Medieval manuscripts also support this, since there is record that unfaithful wives “shall die in a swamp” as punishment (qtd. in Chamberlain and Pearson 79).


The Sacrifice Hypothesis

Competing with the punishment hypothesis is the sacrifice or ritual killing hypothesis. As the hypothesis most widely accepted by archaeologists of the present, this explanation is based mainly on the archaeological evidence from the bog bodies themselves and from other sites in Iron Age Europe.

One intriguing article on this subject is “Humans as Ritual Victims in the Later Prehistory of Western Europe ” by archaeologist Miranda Green, which was published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, and reviews some of the evidence for human sacrifice in temperate Iron Age Europe. Explaining possible reasons for and means of ritual killings, the article examines both archaeological evidence and Roman accounts of earlier practices. Although much of the document deals with non-bog contexts, there is a significant portion that argues for the possibility of ritual killing in the cases of several bog bodies, including Grauballe Man, Tollund Man, and some of the Lindow Men, as well as a woman from Juthe Fen in Denmark. The author of this article is careful not to make hasty assumptions about either the physical or literary evidence and tries to evaluate each in a manner that will provide the correct conclusion.

As a side note, the article also briefly discusses some other topics like the religious ideas behind the sacrifices (see this page to read more about early European religious ideology and practice) and the involvement of women in some of these practices (for more information on the role of women in early Europe, see this page).

Drawing by Niels Bach (From
In contrast to the punishment hypothesis' assertion that the violence indicates that the bog bodies had been socially despised individuals, this article actually suggests that the violence is evidence that they were sacrifices. The author states that "the act of violence toward human, animal, or inanimate sacrifice may itself be associated with its efficacy in stimulating regeneration, prosperity or other desired outcome" (173).

Many bog bodies have many different types of wounds, indicating that their deaths were not just a quick effort to rid the population of undesired members. Rather, they were probably a part of a highly ritualized ceremony. According to archaeologist Timothy Taylor, "One could... say that these people were put to death with minute attention to detail." For example, he states, "To keep Lindow Man alive for each cumulative assault required amazing skill and precision," referring to the blows to his head, strangulation, and throat-slitting that put an end to Lindow Man's life (158). Continuing to discuss evidence that the bog bodies were part of ritual killings, Taylor observes, "It seems that those who brought these people to their death tried to inflict as many insults as possible to their living bodies, short of denying them their recognizable identity... As many kinds of death as possible were symbolically inflicted" (158-159).

This idea is also supported by the evidence presented in the article "Chaining and Shaming: Images of Defeat, from Llyn Cerrig Bach to Sarmitzegetusa," by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, which was published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. Although this article covers material from all over europe, the author makes note of the bog bodies of northwestern Europe, suggesting that the cords around some of the bog bodies' necks "may represent symbolic garrottes or neck-restraints" and were used as a means of subjugating or humiliating them (332).

In any case, the effort and care that was evidently put into the killing of many bog bodies suggests that they were not merely executed as a punitive measure, but as ritualized sacrifices.

Also, the supposed high status of several of the bog bodies supports the hypothesis that these people were particularly chosen to be a part of these rituals, and although it does not completely rule out the possibility that they were social rejects or criminals, this attribute of the bog bodies also does not lend much credit to the idea (Taylor 167 ). The bodies that support this assertion include Grauballe Man, with his delicately preserved fingerprints; Huldremose Woman, with her bone comb which was possibly a symbol of status; Clonycavan Man, with his imported hair-styling resin; and Oldcroghan Man, who was wearing an intricate armband. Those last two also had finely manicured fingernails, which suggests that they had the leisure time to do that, as well as that they may not have been required to do much manual labor.


Another piece of evidence that supports the ritual killing hypothesis is the fact that bogs were widely considered to be places of mystery and associated with gods, spirits, and fairies. According to archaeologists Andrew Chamberlain and Michael Pearson, "The crux of the sacrifice theory is that these watery places were also contexts for votive deposition of food, animals, and artefacts sacrificed in order to make contact with the supernatural world" (Chamberlain and Pearson 81). As noted above, it is true that bogs were often the recipients of items like valuables and weapons, in addition to bodies, although they were not usually deposited in the same areas. The most widely accepted explanation for these stashes is that they were offerings to gods of that region that were associated with bogs ("What"). It follows that the bodies that were deposited in the same type of environment may also have been sacrifices, offerings to the gods.

While many, if not most scholars believe that the Iron Age people had no idea that the people they put in the bogs were going to be preserved, some disagree. An interesting theory of archaeologist Timothy Taylor is that they actually did know the preservative qualities of the bog and purposefully placed the bodies there so that they would be kept from decomposing. He asserts, "Druids were keen students of nature as well as religion and there is no reason to suppose that they would not have known... about the properties of raised bogs." Noting that, although the bog bodies were violently killed, the faces were almost never damaged, Taylor suggests that "the perpetrators wanted the bog victims to be recognizable. And by placing them in the bogs they wanted them recognizable in perpetuity." Taylor also realizes that "This seems paradoxical, if no one was to see them again, and there is no evidence that the bog bodies were subsequently disturbed in antiquity - at least, not deliberately" (164). Perhaps the bog body killers believed that the gods would see these sacrifices and wanted them to be able to recognize unique individuals.

An interesting twist to the sacrifice theory is that there seem to be different reasonings behind bog body sacrifice in mainland Europe and in the British Isles. This may be due to some difference in ideology between the Celtic and Germanic tribes.

According to archaeologist Howard Reid, “Overall, the Celts and Germans knew plenty about each other and led broadly similar lives. All the evidence suggests that they shared common religious beliefs and ritual practices, including occasional ritual killings and the depositing of the victims’ bodies in peat bogs” (86). Certainly there was great similarity between the cultures of the Celtic and Germanic peoples, and there was obviously trade that went across large distances in Europe, as evidenced by Clonycavan Man’s imported hair product, so they would have known much about each other because of this contact. However, contrary to his assertion of similitude, in the case of the bog bodies, there seem to be very different religious motivations behind the bog burials in mainland contexts versus those in the British Isles.
Drawing by Niels Bach (From

Interestingly, in the cases of the Danish bog bodies, many were placed into purposeful excavations into the peat. Another resource that came out of the bogs, in addition to straight peat, was bog iron ore, which could be used to produce iron weapons and tools. Christian Fischer, a curator at the Silkeborg Museum, has made note of the fact that some bog bodies were interred in the bog in areas where both peat and bog iron ore could have been gathered (Chamberlain and Pearson 82). Because of the association between bog bodies and the procurement of these valuable resources, it has been theorized that they were sacrifices in return for those materials or to appease the gods that were said to rule over that area or environment ("Why did He have to Die?").

Contrastingly, in Ireland, bog bodies seem to be associated with kingship rituals. In addition to bog bodies, many items associated with royalty or high status, including elaborate headdresses, gold collars, as well as implements used for feasts, have been discovered in bogs. According to the National Museum of Ireland, "Each of these objects appears to have been associated with the inauguration of a new king, and appear to have been buried in boundary areas as a statement and definition of the king’s new sovereignty" ("Kingship and Sacrifice"). Ned Kelly, an expert on Irish artifacts and a curator at the museum, has suggested that there is a similarity of purpose behind the deposition of the artifacts and the bog bodies, since they were all found on the borders of certain leaders. He has also asserted that they may have been sacrifices to fertility gods in order "to ensure a good yield of corn and milk throughout the reign of the king" (qtd. in Owen 2 ). Although this explanation also involves sacrifice to certain gods, it is obviously for a different reason than the bog depositions in Denmark.

One final piece of evidence for the sacrifice theory comes from an artifact from Denmark. The Gundestrup Cauldron (there is a picture of it above) is intricately decorated with Celtic designs that depict human sacrifice. As an artifact from the same time and culture as the bog bodies, the cauldron provides firsthand confirmation that human sacrifice was a part of this area's culture ("Kingship and Sacrifice"). Since the cauldron has Celtic symbols and was found in a region usually inhabited by Germanic tribes, it implies that there was some continuity of beliefs or rituals over the whole of Northwestern Europe.



In archaeologist Timothy Taylor's view, the punishment hypothesis cannot coexist with the sacrifice hypothesis. If the bog bodies, were indeed sacrifices, then it can reasonably be presumed that they were not, in his words, "damaged goods." As he goes on to say, "It is either the innocent who are sacrificed, because they are pure, or warriors, because they are noble, or slaves, because they are costly. Satisfactory sacrifice is never viewed as wholly in a society's practical interests, it must always involve the perception of a supernatural exchange of value. Sacrifice and punishment are at opposite ends of a symbolic spectrum" (165).

In my opinion, the hypothesis that the bog bodies are ritual sacrifices is the stronger of the two explanations. It is based on the material evidence and what is known of the culture from their own objects and accounts, while the other hypothesis is based on a biased narrative of the Celtic and Germanic tribes’ practices.

However, many questions remain and there is still much to be learned about these bodies, so theories will probably change over time and new ones will spring up as young archaeologists join the ranks of researchers studying these intriguing individuals. As our archaeological methods improve, we will be able to learn more about the bodies that have already been exhumed, as well as those that have yet to be unearthed.

Some may question whether this line of research is relevant to other cultures or to modern individuals. The answer is a resounding 'yes,' because of the prevalence of human sacrifice throughout history. According to archaeologist Howard Reid, "At the heart of human sacrifice there is a notion of balance, or at least the desire to achieve it," which is often the goal of most societies. So, since evidence of human sacrifice can be found as a part of various cultures around the world, and the practice of such a ritual had been observed even up through the 1980s in some areas, it is obvious that there is a need to understand the ideology behind the custom (Reid 99). By studying the beliefs of the Iron Age Europeans, and how they relate to human sacrifice, we endeavor to learn more about the human race in general.


Back to Top

Further Reading

**Back to Top**


“A Body Appears.” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. "Chaining and Shaming: Images of Defeat, from Llyn Cerrig Bach to Sarmitzegetusa." Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23.3 (2004): 319-40. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 2 Dec. 2009 <>.

"Bog Bodies of the Iron Age." NOVA: The Perfect Corpse. Jan. 2006. WGBH Educational Foundation. 28 Nov. 2009 <>.

Briggs, Derek, and Peter R. Crowther. Palaeobiology II. Grand Rapids: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. Pp. 321-325. Google books. Web. 29 Oct. 2009. < >.

Chamberlain, Andrew T., and Michael Parker Pearson. Earthly Remains The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 45-82.

Coles, Bryony, and John Coles. People of the Wetlands: Bogs, Bodies, and Lake-Dwellers. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989.

“Elling Woman” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

Glob, P. V. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. Trans. Rupert Bruce-Mitford. New York: Ballantine, 1971.

“Grauballe Man.” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

Green, Miranda. "Humans as Ritual Victims in the Later Prehistory of Western Europe." Oxford Journal of Archaeology 17.2 (1998): 169-89. Student Archaeology Club. University of Zagreb. 20 Nov. 2009 <>.

"How did the Huldremose Woman Die?" Nationalmuseet. Denmark National Museum. 29 Nov. 2009 < /udstillingen/aeldre_jernalder/kvinden_fra_huldremose/hvordan_doede_huldremosekvinden/language/uk/>.

"Kingship and Sacrifice Exhibition Details." National Museum of Ireland. 04 Dec. 2009

Lange, Karen E. "Tales From the Bog." National Geographic Magazine. Sept. 2007. National Geographic Society. 16 Nov. 2009 <>.
Owen, James. "Murdered "Bog Men" Found With Hair Gel, Manicured Nails." National Geographic News. 17 Jan. 2006. National Geographic Society. 02 Dec. 2009 <>.
Prag, John, and Richard Neave. Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1997.

Reid, Howard. In Search of the Immortals: Mummies, Death, and the Afterlife. New York: St. Martin's P, 2001.

Taylor, Timothy. The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death. New York: Beacon P, 2004.Google Books. Web. 3 Dec. 2009 <>.

“The Last Meal.” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

"The Huldremose Woman's Clothes." Nationalmuseet. Denmark National Museum. 29 Nov. 2009 <>.

“The Naked Body.” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

"The Perfect Corpse." Narr. Neil Ross. NOVA: The Perfect Corpse. Sept. 2006. WGBH Educational Foundation. Transcript. 01 Dec. 2009 <>.

"The Woman from Huldremose." Nationalmuseet. Denmark National Museum. 29 Nov. 2009 <>.
"What Did People Believe In?" 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 04 Dec. 2009 <>.
“Was the Tollund Man Hanged?” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

“When did the Tollund Man Die?” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

“Why are Bog Bodies Preserved for Thousands of Years?” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 29 Oct. 2009. < >.

“Why did He have to Die?” 2004. Silkeborg Public Library, Silkeborg Museum, and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Aarhus Amt. 28 Nov. 2009. <>.

Back to Top