Portrait of a Bog Man
(Image: Robert Clark Institute)
Like hundreds of other bodies found in Europe’s peat bogs, this man poses haunting questions. Who is he? And how did he die?
The body was discovered on 6 May 1950 by a family from the village of Tollund who were digging for peat near Bjældskovdal, Denmark. They thought they had stumbled over a murder victim. In fact, the man dated from the 4th century BC - the Iron Age. Examination at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen revealed he was 30 to 40 years old. Archaeologist Peter Glob christened him “Tollund Man”.
The braided leather noose seen around his neck was strong enough to suspend a grown man. The loose end, which is about 1 metre long, was found rolled up and had been cut with a knife. Tollund Man had been hanged.
Yet he had been placed in the sleeping position, and his eyes and mouth had been closed after death - not what you would expect for a murder victim. This suggests he was sacrificed, says the Silkeborg Museum, where he now resides.
A noose may not mean he was hanged, however. A British bog body, Lindow Man, was found with a thong made of finely twisted animal sinew, but Robert Connolly of the University of Liverpool argues that he died after being “beaten up” and that the cord was ornamental: marks were left on his neck as his body bloated.
Bog bodies are well preserved, thanks to a bog’s acidic water, low temperatures, lack of oxygen and the presence of Sphagnum moss. “Preservation is mainly due to 5-keto-D-mannuronic acid derived from the Sphagnum moss,” says Connolly. “It is powerfully antimicrobial and preservative.”
Even fingerprints can remain after millennia. Earlier this year, Günther Mull of the Institute for Dermatoglyphics in Hamburg, Germany, and colleagues took prints from the “Girl of the Uchter Moor”, found in German marshlands. The prints of the teenage girl, who died around 650 BC,reveal ulnar loops - still the most common fingerprint pattern seen in Europe.