10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World

Natasha sheldon - February 9, 2018

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?

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
Tollund Man from Denmark- one of the best-preserved bog bodies. Google Images.

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 helps 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 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.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
The Bog Bodies of Windover, Florida. Google Images.

The Bog People of Florida

In 1982, at Windover Farm, Florida, a black hoe operator who was digging peat from the bottom of a pond, found some skeletons buried in the peat. The environment preserved the bones so well that investigators from Florida’s state university initially believed they were only a few hundred years old. However, radiocarbon dating revealed them to be between 5000-8000 years old.

Further excavation revealed the skeletal remains of 168 people deliberately buried within the pond. Whoever buried them placed them on their left-hand sides, heads directed west but facing north. Each was accompanied with grave goods and wrapped in woven fabrics. They were quite unlike the lonely burials in European bogs. Many of the skeletons showed signs of illnesses and disabilities that would have afflicted the sufferer for some years -but which they survived because somebody cared for them.

Despite being defleshed, some soft tissue did remain in some of the bodies. In around 100 cases, brain tissue was found intact, which suggests whoever buried the bodies did so within 24-48 hours. DNA sequencing was possible and indicates the Windover bodies were of Asian origin had a rare haplogroup. They were also all related, meaning Windover pond was, in fact, a family cemetery, that experts estimate was in use for over one hundred years.

Usually, bone in Florida degrades quickly because of high acid levels in the soil. But in the case of the Windover farm bog bodies, the bone survived because of a change in the water table. When the first bodies were deposited, Windover pond was relatively shallow with a thin layer of peat at its bottom. Well above the water table, its only water source was the rain. The lack of peat also meant that the flesh from the interred bodies gradually decayed.

However, with time the water table began to rise until it was level with the pond. At the same time, the peat layer thickened. In European bogs, one of the effects of the acid conditions of sphagnum moss is to leach calcium from bones, which explains why the skeletons of European bog bodies do not always survive in excellent condition. However, at Windover, the ph. of the water was neutral rather than acid- preserving the bones if not the flesh.

Although they are ancient, the Florida Bog bodies are by no means the oldest in the world. To meet the most ancient bog people, we must return to northern Europe.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
The Remains of Boris Lazarev preserved since the second world war in a bog. Google Images

From the Mesolithic to the Second World War: The Oldest and Youngest Bog Bodies

Most European Bog bodies date to the Iron Age and early Roman period, with dates falling between 500BC and as late as 100AD. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Like the Florida bog bodies, the oldest bog body in the world survives only as a skeleton. He is Koelbjerg man who was discovered in Denmark in 1941. Formerly thought to be a woman, just a few of Koelbjerg man’s bones and his skull remain. However, the remains indicate a healthy, well-nourished individual who had lived in the same area of the bog all his life and had died sometime in the Mesolithic era in around 8000BC.

In 2011, a peat cutter discovered the oldest known fully fleshed bog body in the Cashel Bog, in County Laois, Ireland. His naked body was found in the middle of the bog, safely squashed beneath two meters of peat. This compression explains his less than impressive appearance which has been likened to a ‘squashed leather holdall.” Although a peat-threshing machine damaged his torso, Cashel man’s arms and legs were in perfect condition, and fragments of his teeth, jaw, and hair were retrieved. These indicate that whoever deposited Cashel Man in the bog did so in 2000BC during the European Bronze Age, one of only two bodies known from that period.

However, bog bodies are not necessarily a thing of the past. In 1998, the mummified remains of Russian fighter pilot, Boris Lazarev were discovered in a swamp. On February 21, 1943, Boris’s plane was one of a group that had set off from a Soviet military airbase in Chupa to attack the Luftwaffe. Boris was shot down during the mission and his plane- and body- plummeted into the swampland below. There, thanks to the anaerobic conditions and the gasoline and oil from Boris’s plane, the unlucky pilot’s body was perfectly preserved- all except for his feet, which the force of the crash severed at the ankles.

All of the bog bodies discussed so far are male. However, not all of the bog people were men- or indeed adults.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
Yde girl died aged sixteen. Picture Credit: Het-Drents Museum. Google Images.

The Peat also Preserves Women and Children

Amongst the solitary bodies found scattered across the peat bogs of Europe are a number of adult women. The oldest female bog body is Luttra woman, a Scandinavian woman dating from the Copper Age between 3105 and 2935 BC. Luttra woman was healthy when she died. Although most of her soft tissues have gone, her stomach remained, preserving her last meal of raspberries, suggesting she died in late summer.

Luttra woman was around 20-25 years old when she died. Some of the female bog bodies, however, were younger. When she died in the Netherlands sometime between 54BC and 128AD, Yde girl was only sixteen years old. However, the youngest bog body was Rost Girl from Germany. Discovered in 1926, she died around 200BC when she was just three years old. Her remains were lost during the Second World War, so no further information is known about her death. However, other, if slightly older children have also been found in the bogs.

Kayhausen boy was between 7-8 years of age when he was discovered in a bog in Lower Saxony, Germany. The child suffered from an infected hip that would have disabled him. His end was not kind. Although he was wrapped in a woolen shawl and the remains of a calfskin cloak before burial in the bog, someone had stabbed Kayhausen boy to death.

Kayhausen’s death has only ever been seen as tragic. However, some of the female bodies have been ‘romanticized,’ with their remains being linked to myths and legends until science revealed the truth. Peat cutters discovered the well-preserved body of Haraldskjaer woman in 1835. The body was that of a well-preserved middle-aged woman, with high cheekbones and long dark hair who had been clamped to the bog by staves through her knees and elbows.

Imagination immediately took over. Danish Historian Niels Matthias Peterson declared the body to be that of the legendary Queen Gunhild of Norway who had died in the tenth century. Gunhild had reputedly married King Harald of Denmark but no sooner had she arrived at her new kingdom; she was killed by him for her cruel, domineering ways. However, once the body was dated, it became clear that the woman could not be Queen Gunhild– because she had died in 490BC.

The reanalysis of Haraldskjaer woman also revealed other interesting information about her life. For she had a connection with ‘foreign’ places- as did other bog bodies.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
Osterby Man, with his hair styled in a Suebian knot. Google Images.

Travel, Trade, and Hair

Mesolithic bog people, such Koelbjerg man spent their entire life- and afterlife- in the same area. However, bodies such as Haraldskjaer woman prove that, by the iron age, people were moving much more freely. Strontium is an element present in the teeth and hair which can be used to pinpoint where a person lived during their lifetime by comparing levels in a human body to the known strontium levels of different areas. Teeth form in childhood and so can be used to determine where someone was born. However hair- especially if it is very long- can record different strontium levels to correspond with a person’s movements.

Haraldskjaer woman’s teeth confirmed that she was born and grew up in Denmark. However, her twenty-inch-long hair revealed a complete picture. For although she spent most of her life in Denmark, Haraldskaer woman moved to a more southerly area in the last years of her life- and only returned just before her death. Textiles found on top of her body confirm this. Two out of the three pieces found were local, but a third textile was of foreign origin.

Haraldskaer woman is not the only bog body to yield information about international links. Clonycavan Man was discovered in Ireland in 2003 and dates to a little later than Haraldskjaer woman; sometime between 392 and 201 BC. His hair was found dressed in a type of Iron Age hair gel made from vegetable fat and pine resin. This resin was not local; its source was southwest France or Spain- indicating that quite sophisticated trade links existed between areas previously assumed to be remote and detached from central and southern Europe during the period in question.

The bog bodies’ hairstyles can also be used to determine social standing- and confirm the reliability of the written accounts of outsiders. In the ’40s and ‘50s, two male bogs bodies named Osterby man and Datgen man respectively were discovered in the Schleswig-Holstein area of Germany. Both had hair styled in the Suebian knot; a hairstyle described by the Roman writer Tacitus in his Germania as the traditional hairstyle of free male warriors of the Suebian tribe.

Testing the bog bodies does not just yield information about their society. We can also learn how healthy they were as individuals- and what day-to-day afflictions even healthy people suffered.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
Denmark’s Graubelle Man had Harris lines on his teeth indicating malnutrition. Google Images.

How Healthy were the Bog People?

Bog bodies seem to fall into two extreme categories: those who were physically strong and healthy at the time of death and those with visible disabilities. Old Croghan Man, one of the most recent bog bodies to be discovered in Ireland, must have been an impressive sight when he was alive sometime between 362 and 175 BC. Although only his torso survives intact, experts have been able to calculate his height from his arm span, estimating it as somewhere around 6 ft 5 inches tall.

Not only was Old Croghan man tall; he was well built overall with his arms showing substantial muscle development. Unsurprisingly, analysis has revealed that he was well-nourished throughout most of his life, enjoying a rich, meat-based diet. Old Croghan Man also seems to have led a life of relative ease as his manicured hands show no signs of hard labor.

However, at the other end of the spectrum are a group of bodies that seem to be not only socially but physically disadvantaged. Before she was confined to her bog, sixteen-year-old Yde Girl was wrapped in a cloak that had seen better days, indicating her poverty or at the very least a lack of social worth. Yde Girl also suffered from slight scoliosis of the spine, which lead her to rest her weight on her right foot. Callusing caused by this is still visible on her right big toe. Due to her deformity, Yde girl would probably have walked with an awkward gait, her right foot slightly twisted inwards.

However, minor ailments plagued even the most pampered and privileged. Based on his smooth hands, unmarked by signs of hard labor, experts have assumed that, like Old Croghan man, Denmark’s Graubelle Man was a member of a local elite. However, Harris lines on his teeth show that during childhood, his development was interrupted by periods of malnutrition- a testament to the uncertainty of life for everyone in prehistoric communities. Lindow man’s hands also suggested he did little manual work. However, he still suffered from roundworm and whipworm. Even the robust Old Croghan Man had contracted pleurisy at some point in his life.

However, one thing the European bog bodies have in common is they all died violent deaths.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
Lindow Man was bludgeoned, strangled and had his throat cut before drowning in the bog. Google Images.

Most Bog Bodies Died Violent Deaths

With very few exceptions, the bog bodies of northern Europe, whether male, female or child died violently. Often their bodies were abused before death and some show signs of multiple methods of execution. Killing methods varied but garroting, hanging, stabbing, bludgeoning, throat-cutting and decapitation were all common causes of death.

Strangulation is the most common method. Initially, the finders of Haraldskaer Woman believed she was drowned in situ because she was pinned down in the bog. However, an autopsy carried out in 2000 found a narrow ligature line around her neck showing someone garroted her. Yde Girl suffered the same fate- and was discovered with the fabric that killed her around the neck of her partially clothed body.

It seems to have been common to leave nooses attached to their victims, as Tollund Man was sent to his grave naked except for a belt, a sheepskin hat- and the platted rope, which was used to kill him. However, whoever killed Tollund Man did not garrot him; they hung him. A CT scan identified a scar at the back of his neck, caused by the weight of his body, which pulled the noose up into a V shape.

There were, however, other ways to die. Grauballe man had his throat slashed so violently that he was almost decapitated. German bog neighbors Osterby Man and Datgen Man lost their heads. In Osterby Man’s case, it is all that survives of him, found in a bag staked to the bottom of the bog minus his body.

Some of the victims seem to have fought back before they died. Kayhausen boy and Old Croghan Man both have slash marks on their left arms, indicating an attempt to ward off blows. Others seem to have been abused before death. Graubelle Man suffered a massive blow to the leg pre mortum that would undoubtedly have undermined him. Clonycavan man was subjected to a barrage of ax blows to his head and upper body before he was eventually killed and disemboweled.

However, some bodies have multiple potential causes of death. Old Croghan Man seems to have been stabbed in the left lung and then decapitated. However, the clearest example of ‘overkill’ is Lindow Man from the Northwest of England. Not only was his skull fractured by one of several blows to his head, but his attackers then garroted him and cut his throat before finally pushing him face down into the bog where he took his final breath.

Whatever the method of death, why were these men, women, and children all so violently killed? There is more than one theory.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
Recreation of Tollund Man’s death. Was he executed? Google Images

Murder Victims or Executed Criminals?

The violent, irreverent nature of the deaths suffered by some of the bog bodies; their lack of grave goods- or clothing, evidence of them fighting and being subdued and their marginal, isolated burials, are believed by some experts to suggest they were murder victims. The case for murder is simple: the victims were robbed and stripped of their valuables. Blows to the head and defensive knife wounds occurred as they fought off their attackers who then killed them and dumped the bodies in the bog to hide their crime.

However, the lack of clothing on the bodies is probably because cloth often rots in the bog. Robbers are unlikely to have taken a tunic but left a valuable leather belt and hat on Tollund Man’s dead body. Neither would they have stripped Old Croghan Man but overlooked the intricate leather armband decorated with metal La Tene style motifs he wore to his grave. The mode of death is also often too complicated. Murder, therefore, is not a satisfactory explanation for the majority of the bodies.

The next possibility is execution: of criminals or those who were socially suspect or marginalized. Tacitus provides us with a description of execution amongst the German tribes, which contains elements that find their echo in the deaths of the bog bodies. “The punishment varies to suit the crime,” he explains. “A traitor and deserter are hanged on trees, the coward, the shirker and the unnaturally vicious are drowned under swamps under a cover of wattle hurdles (Germania 12).

Tacitus was writing in the first century AD about an area roughly corresponding with the regions on mainland Europe where bog bodies have been found: Germany, the Netherlands, and southern Denmark. Many bog bodies such as Tollund Man, Lindow Man, Haraldsvar Woman and Yde Girl show evidence of strangulation, which could equate to a traitor’s death. All the bodies fit the notion of ‘drowning’ by nature of their burial- but some were pinned under hurdles. Old Croghan man was anchored in place by staves through his arms. Haraldsvar woman’s killers staved her through the knees and elbows with hurdles that curved over her body and strapped her in place.

However, in all cases, this securing occurred after the main death for drowning was not the primary cause of death. While it is natural that methods of execution varied over tribes, there are other elements to the deaths that suggest that something more than a sentence was being carried out.

The first clue that something more was going on is the significance of the bogs themselves. For bogs may have been marginal, but they were also sacred places.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
The Braak Bog Figures: did they represent the gods of the Bog? Google Images.

The Sacred Nature of Bogs

Bogs were marginal places. Composed of both earth and water, they occupied a hinterland in nature as they were neither one thing or another. To the ancient people of North-West Europe, such places were sacred as they were nexus points; places where two different states of being met. Where one world met another. Where spirits lived. For although local people would harvest bog plants and raid the peat for bog iron, which was essential for making tools and weapons, they could not cultivate these remote, damp spots. Strange miasmas and lights could lead the unwary to a watery death. Simply put, bogs were a realm of the gods and as such were treated with respect.

The bogs of Schleswig- Holstein, Germany have yielded several bog bodies. They have also given up other things. In 1947, the bog yielded up two naked, larger-than-life carvings; one styled as male, the other female. Each was carved from a single tree branch sometime around the second century BC. The imposing figures were initially fixed upright and would have been visible from some distance away. They would have dominated and terrified any onlookers with their wide staring eyes and open mouths. Evidence of fires and feasting around them suggests that they were the center of ceremonials and represented the gods of the bog.

If the bogs were the place of the gods, it is hardly likely that anyone would unceremoniously dump unwanted bodies in them. However, they did make offerings to them. Along with the bog bodies, Europe’s peat bogs have yielded a variety of spectacular finds, which were deposited, not accidentally lost. Swords, deliberately broken or ‘decommissioned’ have been found in the bogs, as well as household objects and royal regalia. The offerings made represented the best people could afford. One of the most spectacular rediscovered bog offerings was the Gundestrup Cauldron, which was deposited in Denmark’s Borremose bog sometime around 100BC.

Images on the Gundestrup cauldron offer clues to the significance of the bog bodies.

10 Creepy Secrets About the Bog Bodies of the World
A scene of sacrifice from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Google Images.

Sacrificial Victims

Standard prehistoric burials– whether inhumation or cremation- involved the decomposition of the flesh in the belief this would release the spirit. However, ancient people knew that bogs were preserved, hence their use as a store for bog butter. Miranda Aldhouse Green believes that bodies were placed in bogs to preserve their flesh- and stop the spirit from moving on. The fact that many of the bog bodies were staked down reinforces this. Cashel man, Old Croghan man, and Clonycavan man were all buried along the borders of tribal boundaries within sight of the hills where tribal chiefs were inaugurated. This significant coincidence suggests that whoever they once were, the bog bodies were chosen to eternally guard these important areas.

The last meals of the victims were usually based on seasonal grains and vegetables, corresponding with late winter, early spring- lending credence to the belief of P V Glob that certain bodies were offerings to the earth to ensure a good crop in the coming season. Some of these meals also suggest the victims were sedated; an unusual kindness to a criminal. Lindow man’s stomach contained four grains of mistletoe, a substance known to act as a sedative. Graubelle man’s stomach contained traces of ergot, a grain blight that after prolonged ingestion resulted in convulsions, hallucinations and eventually death. Was he poisoned with ergot to ensure that he too, was insensible at his death?

Then there are the deaths themselves which often involved not one but several potentially fatal methods of dispatch. Lindow Man’s, in particular, suggests these deaths may have had a sacred element. He shows signs of ‘the triple death, a sacred from of sacrifice in which he was bludgeoned to knock him out, garrotted, his throat cut before he was pushed down into the bog to take his last breath.

So who were the people who were sacrificed? Perhaps they were criminals. Or, as seems more likely, perhaps they were specifically selected for the purpose of the sacrifice. The disabled Yde Girl and Kayhausen boy could have been sacrificed because of their youth or because their community was small or poor and could not sustain them when they fell on hard times. Those identified as of high standing, however, were probably offerings not for a single community but a whole tribe to mark a significant event. Old Croghan man is believed to have been a king, sacrificed for the good of his tribe. Suckling at the king’s nipples was a way of showing fealty in ancient Ireland. Old Croghan man’s nipples have been slashed- suggesting he was decommissioned, rather like the broken swords also found in the bogs.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ranker.Com: 14 Strange and Gruesome Facts About Bog Bodies.

Smithsonian Mag.Com: Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets

National Geographical: Who Were the Ancient Bog Mummies? Surprising New Clues.

National Geographical News: Murdered “Bog Men” Found with Hair Gel, Manicured Nails

Archaeology (Publication Of The Archaeological Institute Of America): Bodies Of The Bogs

Nautilus: The Curious Case of The Bog Bodies

BBC News: The World’s Oldest Bog Body Hints at Violent Past.

Livescience: Oldest Bog Body Found with Skin Intact

National Museum of Ireland: Kingship And Sacrifice

Miranda Aldhouse-Green: Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery.

Postmortempost.Com: Mummified Body of A WWII Pilot Discovered 66 Years Later.

The Windover Archaeological Research Project.

Archeoscience: Strontium Isotope Investigations of The Haraldskær Woman – A Complex Record Of Various Tissues.

Ranker.com: The Astonishingly Violent Backstories Of 12 Bog Bodies Preserved For Centuries

The Washington Post: Florida Bog Reveals 8,000-Year-Old Secrets

Ancient Origins: Osterby Man Still Has a Great Hairdo Nearly 2,000 Years On!

History of Yesterday: These Bog Bodies of Northern Europe Reveal a Chilling Tale of Human Sacrifice