A real-life forensic thriller revealing the secrets of ancient and modern bodies preserved in bogs—some for nearly 3,000 years—in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, and northern Germany.
Aldhouse-Green (Emeritus, Archaeology/Cardiff Univ.; The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends, 2015, etc.) describes how the environments of these bogs, formed from marshes filled with half-decomposed, partially decayed vegetation, are both the subject of myth and of scientific interest. “Bogs were and are special places, miasmic and fearsome,” she writes. “They hover in the ’tween space between land and water.” The preserved dead bodies found in them “are an archaeologist’s dream.” Their lack of oxygen, combined with bog acids and a particular bog moss, creates the conditions in which bodies are preserved, “complete with soft tissue, skin, hair, finger- and toenails and with their internal organs intact too.” The discovery of hundreds of bog bodies offers clues to their social statuses, the foods they ate, and the manners of their deaths. With modern forensic tools, it is possible to probe whether the cause of death was accidental or the result of violence and whether the victim was killed as a ritual sacrifice, punished for heinous crimes, or denied a traditional burial as a mark of shame. Some individuals no doubt met accidental deaths, and more recently, others have been identified as probable murder victims. Aldhouse-Green relies on her archaeological expertise and knowledge of Celtic myths, along with accounts of ancient authors on barbarian rituals, to ponder “the million-dollar question: whether human sacrifice was behind some or all of the Iron- and Roman-period bog deaths.” Wisely reminding us that the bog bodies “are not artifacts but people” worthy of respect, the author speculates on the fact that a number of the bodies seem to reveal deformities that may have singled individuals out for ritual sacrifice, perhaps to deities thought to reside in the bogs.
An intriguing window into the past.