The Mystery of the Bog Body
A body found in Jutland, Denmark, raises questions about life of the past.
On May 8, 1950, a mysterious discovery was made in the bogs of the Jutland Peninsula, Denmark. A group of peat moss cutters, among them a boy of only 11 years old, unearthed a chilling find in the cold mud of the barren boglands. They had uncovered the body of a middle-aged man, stark naked but for a small cap on his head and a leather braid around his neck. The local homicide unit was called in and the unidentified man was taken to the police station to be autopsied.
As the inspection began, it became clear that this was no ordinary homicide case. The next step the lead detective made was to call Peter Vilhelm Glob, Professor of Archaeology at the nearby Aarhus University. P.V. Glob would help unravel the mystery of the bog body, the unnamed corpse, who later became known as, Tollund Man.
280 BC. End of Harvest Time – Tollund
I awoke this morning to a cruel wind whistling through the log walls of the long house. The first sign of winter was announcing itself to us mortals who would have to weather its wicked notions. To my left, curled up under the thin buckskin blankets and patchy, well-used fox furs, lay Ceraii, the mother of my small son. Ceraii’s wild, copper hair surrounded her sun-flecked face, giving the impression that she slept in a small nest of curls. Demnan, our new-born child lay between us, wrapped in the best furs our people possessed. As the only male of four children born this year, it was the village’s duty to protect him. As the only male born in a year marked by drought and disease, he was also the reason this would be my last day walking this earth.
It had snuck up on us. The familiar green blooms and shoots of spring had ushered us into a new year. Harvest from the year before had kept us well fed and ready to begin cultivating the land. An air of promise hung around us. It had seemed the Spirits were smiling down. Then, the rains of spring arrived. Unusually early and unusually violent. The torrential downpour did not let up until well into mid-summer. By that time, any crops that had taken root were drowned before they could produce bounty. Any forest food that survived was riddled with rot and mold. Finding food that was unmarked was near impossible and inevitably, the rot took root within our people as well.
A raspy gurgle escaped from Demnan’s soft lips. I studied the shape of his face. The round cheeks, mottled with ruddy red. A strong, straight nose that turned up slightly at the end, like his mothers. Thick charcoal hair had begun to fill in on his large head. I was glad for the fast-growing hair. It was a sign of a virility, and he was sure to need the extra warmth for the coming winter. He is only a season old. He will not hold a memory of me, but I may take one of him. I held his face unblinkingly in my vision for as long as I could manage. I hoped to take this moment with me to the other side. To hold a memory of him, so that I may watch over him from the spirit world.
Demnan. You may not remember me as a father, but you may remember me as a legend. May the Spirits bless my offering and may each of your tribe survive what is sure to be the harshest winter they have ever lived.
My eyes grew dry and I blinked. The moment was over and with it, my former life. Quietly I crept out from our sleeping spot. I crossed the long room where each member of our tribe lay with their loved ones, curled together for warmth. Without hesitation I stepped out into the cold, grey morning. There was no more room for pause if I was to complete my mission.
The air in the village was eerily still. Thick fog rolled out from the dark forest and blanketed the ground. It covered the field to the north. Blackened bits of crop stuck out from the grey, an unwelcomed reminder of the year past. The cackle of a crow near startled me to death. I looked up to see my feathered assailant, perched in a gnarled Alder tree. He had a steely glint in his eye and I got the feeling that he was trying rid me from this world himself. I hastened my pace and headed straight west. To the healer’s hut. To the bog.
The bog is a cherished place. A place to be revered. Bogs are scattered across our homelands, breaking up the thick and uninhabitable forest. A sacred meeting of land and water. It is a portal to the Spirit world. It offers special healing plants, houses many animals and provides small amounts of iron, enough to craft our tools. We in turn, must offer gifts back to the Spirit of the bog. And so, there I was.
Cornovii had been village healer since I was a small boy. His sheer age was a miracle and he was deeply respected by our people. He greeted me outside his hut. A ceremonial tunic, woven with bits of iron, hung from his bony shoulders. A wide grin spread across Cornovii’s taught, leathery face, revealing only 5 discoloured teeth. He opened the door and ushered me into the hut.
“Today, you are honoured. You will join with the spirit and bring great gifts to us on earth.” I sat on the stump in the middle of the hut. The walls were covered with tools, both practical and ceremonial. Dried bits of animal skin, and plant roots hung from the ceiling. The air was rich with must. Cornovii thrust a wooden vessel towards me.
“Eat. For the Spirit.” In the bowl was a thick paste made from the season’s harvest of grains and seeds. This is what the tribe would survive on for the rest of the winter. I let the nutty flavours mingle in my mouth making slow work of the meal. Flashes of Ceraii ran through my mind. Us together, gathering grains in the unforgiving summer sun. Her belly swollen to full size. Her cheeks gaunt in comparison.
“Now. Prepare. Do not speak. Do not move. This life is no longer yours.” Cornovii sat cross-legged in front of me. He shut his eyes and did not speak again. I too closed my eyes. I no longer belonged to myself, but I still wanted to take a bit of him with me. A bit of Demnan. I held his image in my memory. The next 12 hours drifted by. I willed time to slow, but I could feel the cool air seeping in from outside, announcing dusk.
Suddenly the door flew open. I looked up to see Cornovii looming over me. His face was transformed from the morning’s jovial demeanour. He wore a mask of hard determination. A ceremonial dagger was in his hand and I couldn’t help but flinch as he brought it to my skin. He ripped at the seams of my tunic and leggings, they fell to my feet in a heap of rags. I was left naked but for my cap.
Cornovii stood at the door and stared toward the bog. He waited for me and then we walked straight into the bog’s depths. Thick mud squelched between my toes as I pushed through brambles and moss. The further we went, the softer the ground got and the more water we met. I was nearly up to my waste in frigid muddy water when Cornovii halted. Before us was a mighty stump. It was scarred with black marks of smoke. Likely a victim of lightning from the great Spirit above.
Cornovii motioned for me to kneel. He slipped a thin braided leather rope over my head and tightened it around my neck. He pushed me forward so that I was knelt over, face down on the great stump. The sole of his sandal landed firmly on the back of my neck and he began to pull on the braid around my neck with a might far greater than a man his age should possess. My heart quickened and I was on the verge of crying out and shaming the entire tribe, of sullying the great gift that was being offered, but the sound of Cornovii’s voice, stilled my tongue.
“Great Bog Spirit. We have been ravaged by the seasons. Our people are sick, and left with little food. We fear we may not last the winter. Please, take this offering as a gift. Bless us with your protection. This man sired the only male child our village was blessed with this cycle. Please, take him. He is a worthy offering.”
Cornovii’s foot drove into the back of my neck with a frightening force. I opened my mouth to gasp for air but my throat was crushed under Cornovii’s heel. Silent tears dripped down from my eyes. I closed them and thought of Ceraii. Of Demnan. His image shone brilliantly on the back of my lids. It was the last thing I saw that evening, as I knelt in the sacred bog and said a prayer, asking that my life, would save his.
Shortly after the discovery of Tollund Man’s body in 1950, it was confirmed through radiocarbon dating that he had lived sometime between 375-210 BC. Tollund Man is one of a small group of cadavers that have been discovered in the bogs of Northern Europe. Most of these peoples of the past died roughly in the same time period (Iron Age). It is widely thought that the deaths were sacrificial, though some speculate that the bog bodies were possible criminals that had been punished, or perhaps these were cases of plain cold murders.
What makes Tollund Man stand out from his kin, is how remarkably well preserved his body, especially his face, is. Gazing at Tollund Man’s face, there is little difference from someone you might see walking down the street. Which is why when he was unearthed in 1950, his case was originally mistaken for a recent homicide, rather than a remarkable archeological find.
Tollund Man was so well preserved that we could tell many things about him, from cause of death (strangulation), down to what he had as his last meal (porridge or gruel made from grains and seeds). Because of what was found in his stomach, it was likely that he died in early spring or winter when there were no other food options available.
Luckily thanks to a few other recent trials, such as the study of the strontium isotopes in the hair of bog people, we have discovered even more about Tollund Man and others like him. The study of the strontium isotope can reveal where an individual has been geographically. Though since Tollund Man’s hair was so short, we can only get a small picture. It seems he spent the last year of his life in Denmark and likely did not travel outside of the area.
As there was no written language in Scandinavia during this period, the rest is up to speculation! If you’d like to visit Tollund Man and ponder how he came to meet his fate in the Bjældskovdal Bog, he is currently housed in the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark.
“Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters'
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.”
The Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney