The bodies in the

Peat bogs

The bogs of northern Europe are the last resting place of many Iron Age people. Their uncannily well-preserved bodies bring us face-to-face with our ancestors, revealing information about health, diet and appearance. But some of the corpses are chilling reminders of the ritual practices of the distant past.

A cold, dry wind was blowing in from the Baltic, the sky was cloudless and blue, and the sun was shining on a May morning in 1950. It was ideal weather for cutting peat, since the moorland quickly became a morass when it rained. Brothers Emil and Viggo Hojgard needed peat to burn in their stoves, and set out from the hamlet of Tollund in eastern Jutland, Denmark, to the moor at Bjaeldskovdal. They were making good progress when they came across something that froze the blood in their Veins.

(Many of the bog bodies are Iron Age farmers who once lived in small settlements made up of wattle-and-daub cottages on-the coastal lowlands. Iron technology was-introduced into-the region in the middle of the first millennium,BC)

(Tollund Man was found laid in a relaxed position, his legs bent against his abdomen. His face, with its wrinkles, reddish stubble and hair, was alarmingly well-preserved. His body was naked but he wore a leather cap and a belt round his waist. A braided leather rope around his neck revealed that he had been garrotted)

As they eased a large block of cut peat away from the side of the pit, they found themselves staring at the face of a corpse. Further investigation revealed that the head belonged to a man of around 40 who was lying between the layers of peat. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be sleeping peacefully, yet around his neck was a tightly wound leather rope. The body was so well preserved that the Hojgard brothers were convinced that they had stumbled upon the victim of a crime and immediately informed the police in the neighbouring town of Silkeborg.

Almost exactly two years after the discovery of that body, who became known as the Tollund Man, a worker cutting peat on Domsland Moor near Eckernforde in Schleswig-Holstein, North Germany, made a similar find. Near the Windeby estate, he uncovered the so-called Windeby Girl. Externally, the girl showed no signs of violence, although she had a shaven head and had been blindfolded.

Just a few metres from the site where she was found, a second bog burial came to light in June of the same year, this time almost certainly the body of a man. Perhaps a drama of tragic passion had been played out on the moor, with the young couple taking their own lives in a lovers' pact?

The best-preserved mummies are found in upland or freshwater moors.

Small children have also been among the corpses found in peat bogs. In 1922 a peat cutter working on Kayhauser Moor in the Ammerland region of Germany felt his spade strike a hard object deep below the surface. He carefully dug down further with his bare hands, only to come upon a shocking discovery. The body of the Kayhausen Boy lay exposed in the brown soil of the bog. On a cursory examination, a doctor discovered three stab wounds in the child's neck. The murdered child had been seven years old at the most; although his teeth had mostly disintegrated, a milk tooth was found in his jaw.


Most of the discovery sites for the so-called 'bog-bodies' are found in an area covered by northern and central European upland moor, within a cool and moist climatic zone that begins in Ireland and passes through Britain, the Netherlands, Northern Germany and Denmark, extending as far as the Baltic States.

The first bog body was discovered in the 17th century. Since then, several hundred have been unearthed, some complete skeletons and bodies with well-preserved skin and hair and others dismembered skulls, arms and legs.

Modern techniques have enabled the remains to be accurately dated. The bodies of two women mark the beginning and the end of the era of bog burials. The oldest is the Kolbjerg Woman, who is thought to have drowned around 10,000 years ago at the age of 25 and whose body later drifted into the bog. The most recent is Rosalinde, who was roughly the same age, and found her last resting place on Black Spawn Moor near Peiting in Upper Bavaria. Her body dates from the Middle Ages.

The great majority of bog burials come from the Iron Age in Central Europe, from between 700 BC and the first years AD. Modern dating techniques do sometimes explode some seductive myths. The Windeby Girl, who according to the reconstruction work done on her skull was probably a finely-featured brunette, definitely cannot have known her supposed lover. He died in AD 185 at the latest, some 150 years before the young woman.

Bodies are not the only remains preserved in the bogs of northern Europe. Several deposits of war equipment, including warships, shields and iron spearheads, have been found that date as far back as the Ice Age in Germany. Other ritual deposits, perhaps made as votive offerings in sacred sites, have been uncovered: the most famous of these is the Gundestrup cauldron of the 2nd century BC, a massive silver vessel decorated with scenes of stags, snakes, warriors and deities.


How did the people whose bodies have been found in the bogs meet their deaths? It has been suggested that many were simply accident victims, who became mired in the bogs and drowned. The Husbake Man from Husbake Moor near Oldenburg probably died in this way. Some may have died of other natural causes. The Windeby Girl probably perished on the moor at the age of 14 from hunger and exhaustion.

But a number of bodies show unmistakable signs that they met a violent end. They were evidently stabbed, beaten to death, throttled or hanged. Examples of such corpses are the Osterby Man, who was also found near Eckernforde, with a smashed, decapitated skull, or the Yde Girl, found in the Netherlands, who was clearly strangled.

Contemporary Roman accounts of the Nordic peoples suggest that these victims of violence were prisoners of war or criminals who, following execution, were disposed of in the moorland bogs. It is also suggested that the Iron Age people of northern Europe offered human sacrifices to celebrate military victories, or to propitiate the gods - for example in the case of illness.

It is not known how many more bodies still lie undisturbed in their damp graves.

It is also possible that only the most prominent and respected members of Iron Age society were ritually killed and offered up as sacrifices to the gods of the moor. The Tollund Man had done no hard manual work during his lifetime, otherwise his hands would have been calloused.

The careful way in which his eyelids had been tenderly closed and his body laid on a soft bed of moss also militates against the idea that he was a criminal. Twenty-four hours before his death, Tollund Man had consumed a porridge made from more than 60 different grass varieties and herbs. The plants in question mature at different times of the year, showing that the seeds must have been collected over a period of several weeks, possibly deliberately gathered for the man's last meal before his execution.

Perhaps the people of the Iron Age were even aware that bodies become naturally mummified in upland bogs, and so deliberately chose such regions for high-status burials. The fact that people of the time set great store in preserving the mortal remains of their relatives for as long as possible is reflected in the man-made ice graves used by people of the same period from the Altai Mountains in Siberia.


Whatever the cause of or reason for their deaths, these well-preserved bodies are often extremely revealing about the lives of Iron Age and other prehistoric peoples. Using modern investigative techniques, the bodies can tell us much about diet, clothing, hairstyles and even illnesses. Our ancient ancestors put a premium on their external appearance. Some bodies are clothed in woollen garments that are decorated with intricate embroidery work. The Osterby Man had his hair done up in elaborate braids. Sometimes these findings can, in a roundabout way, cast light on the time and cause of the individual death. The stomach of the Kayhausen Boy, for example, contained two apple cores, that he must have been killed in autumn or winter. The bodies are also eloquent reminders of the sufferings of our ancestors. It is clear that the Yde Girl suffered from scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine that is associated with severe pain. A man found on the Danish island of Seeland had been subjected to an excruciatingly painful operation: his skull was trepanned, or opened up. Although we know that he survived this surgery, why was it carried out in the first place? Was it to clear a blood-clot that had formed in his brain after a blow from an axe? Or did the person who operated on him want to release an evil spirit through the hole he had made in the man's head? The answer to this question is one of the many mysteries that bog burials still hold for researchers of the 21st century.

Mummification in upland, moors

Lack of oxygen 

Layers of peat in bogs have virtually no oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, putrefaction occurs very slowly.

Acidic water

The extremely high pH value of the water in upland moors, which is caused by natural acids, has a similar preservative effect.

Preservatives in water 

Tanning agents in peaty water transform skin into a kind of leather; hair often takes on a fiery tinge, such as in the case of 'Red Franz' found in 1900 in a bog near Neu Versen in Germany, but is well preserved.

Low temperatures 

Even in summer, upland moors retain a cool ground temperature, since they lose a great deal of ambient heat through evaporation. Decay is slowed down at low temperatures.