In 1640, a peat cutter unearthed something strange on Shalkholz Fen, a peat bog in Holstein, Northern Germany. It was a body: well preserved and potentially ancient, protected by the peat surrounding it. The Shalkholz peat body was the first bog body ever to be recorded. However, it was not until 1780, that anyone thoroughly investigated a bog body when Elizabeth Rawden, Countess of Moira, took an interest in remains found on her husband’s lands near the Drumkeragh Mountains of Ireland. The Countess published her findings in Archaeologia and finally, the scientific world began to take an interest in the bog people, as they became known.
In the intervening years, peat cutters have unearthed more and more bodies the bogs of Britain, Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany- and sometimes elsewhere in the world. Dating between 8000BC and 100AD, these natural mummies are preserved with their flesh intact; so intact that nails, skin, hair- even facial features- are just as they were at the moment of death in the best-preserved examples. Modern scientific analysis and comparative history have been used to tease out the secrets of the lives and deaths of these remarkable corpses. So what are the secrets of the bodies in the bogs?
How Peat Preserves
Bogs begin life as shallow lakes and ponds. As plants around the ponds die, they fall into the water. However, they do not fully decompose because the stagnant, waterlogged conditions create an oxygen deficient atmosphere, which in turn inhibits the activity of the bacteria that cause decay in organic material. As time progresses, more layers are deposited, compressing the earlier ones and forming peat. This anaerobic atmosphere- plus a couple of other exceptional conditions created only in bogs help generate bog bodies.
Crucial to the process of bog body formation is sphagnum, a particular form of moss, which is one of the few plants to thrive around peat bogs. Sphagnum acts as a sponge, soaking up water. At the same time, it releases a compound into its surrounding environment. This compound binds nitrogen and calcium to it, creating an acidic environment, which further inhibits bacterial activity. It is this acidity, which is crucial to the preservation of organic matter for, without it, wood, hides- and human flesh will eventually decay. It is the acid from sphagnum moss that also gives the flesh and hair of bog bodies their signature red tinge.
Temperature is the final ingredient in optimal bog body preservation. Bacteria cannot grow in in temperatures below 4 degrees Celsius. So the best bog bodies are created in winter. Tollund Man from Denmark is a product of these optimal conditions. The lack of meat and fresh vegetables in his last meal indicates that whoever deposited him in the bog did so in the winter or early spring. By the time that temperatures had risen sufficiently for bacteria to grow, Tollund Man’s body tissues were pickled; soaked in bog acid and protected from decay. These conditions are why Tollund Man is one of the best-preserved examples of a bog body. Not only is his expression perfectly preserved, but so is his skin texture- even the stubble on his face.
Raised bogs have the optimal conditions for preservation. They are created on poorly drained land, fed by high rainfall. This rainfall is the crucial element in the formation of the bogs. Not only does it form the basis of the bog pools that collect in hollows in the land, but it is also crucial to sphagnum moss, which requires it to thrive. The perfect conditions for raised bogs exist in Ireland, Britain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands- all the areas renown for bog bodies.
Most. But not all. For bog bodies, albeit ones not preserved in quite the same way as their European counterparts, can be found elsewhere in the world.