• Most bog bodies are victims. Violently killed thousands of years ago, the corpses of men, women, and children have been naturally preserved by the unique chemistry of Northern Europe’s bogs.
     
    Today, archaeologists and anthropologists are acting as crime-scene investigators. They’re using knowledge of chemistry, geology, and human behavior to better understand the circumstances that led to these gruesome deaths.
     
    Watch this four-minute video from the National Geographic Channel, then discuss the questions in the Questions tab.
    1. What are some differences between Europe’s bog bodies and their more glamorous cousins, Egyptian mummies?

      Bog bodies are “accidental mummies,” preserved by the natural chemistry of the bog. Egyptian mummies, on the other hand, were intentionally preserved in a complicated process developed over time by experts.

       

      Another difference between bog bodies and Egyptian mummies is the bodies themselves. Bog bodies are anonymous victims of ritual sacrifice. Egyptian mummies are mostly royalty or high-ranking officials honored with fantastic splendor.

       

      Archaeologists are challenging the second assumption, however. According to one expert quoted in National Geographic magazine, all the bog bodies discovered in Ireland “were buried on borders between ancient Irish kingdoms. In ancient times . . . Irish kings symbolically married the fertility goddess; famine meant the goddess had turned against the king and had to be mollified.” Bog bodies may have “represented the most splendid of offerings: high-ranking hostages taken to force rebellious lords into obedience, pretenders to the throne, or even the failed kings themselves.”

    2. Why do you think Iron Age communities allowed these people to be killed?

      Answers will vary! Originally, many historians thought bog bodies were the remains of criminals, killed as punishment for crimes against society. According to National Geographic magazine, these theories were largely discounted after an archaeologist discovered that Windeby Girl, a bog body supposedly killed for adultery and buried near her lover, was actually a man and the body of “her” “lover” was 1,000 years older.

       

      Today, most archaeologists think the bodies were victims of ritual sacrifice. Community members most likely chose a victim days ahead of time, with the victim’s full knowledge. Victims were walked to the bog, then killed: throat slit, stabbed, strangled, beaten to death or, in at least one case, decapitated.

       

      In the video, Iron Age Europe is depicted as a superstitious and “harsh world, filled with uncertainty, foreign invasion, and premature death.” Victims may have been killed to ward off some of these hardships.

       

      Victims may have also been killed to appease the “fertility goddesses that Celtic and Germanic peoples believed held the power of life and death. It could have happened one winter after a bad harvest, the researchers say. People were hungry, reduced to eating chaff and weeds. They believed that one of their number had to die so the rest could survive.”

    • Not all bog bodies are ancient. The pristine bodies of Russian soldiers killed during World War II were discovered in Polish bogs in the 1990s.
    • The hair on most bog bodies is red. They weren’t all redheads, however—the color is a result of hair’s chemical reaction with the acidic water in the bog. Scientists don’t know the actual color of the mummies’ hair.
    • Many bog bodies are so well preserved scientists can tell what they ate for their last meal. Most had cereals (such as wheat or rye) or bread, and a few had meat.
    • In 1976, Danish police successfully took fingerprints of Tollund Man, probably the world’s most famous bog body and the one shown in the video. At more than 2300 years old, these are the oldest fingerprints on record!
    • The oldest bog body yet discovered is that of Koelbjerg Woman. This 25-year-old Danish woman died around 8000 BCE.
    • Most bog bodies are found in Northern Europe. However, peat ponds in Florida have also preserved the skeletons of ancient Native Americans.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    anonymous adjective, noun

    unknown person or contributor.

    anthropologist Noun

    person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

    archaeologist Noun

    person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

    bog Noun

    wetland of soft ground made mostly of decaying plant matter.

    bog body Noun

    prehistoric remains of a person, preserved and discovered in a wetland bog.

    chemistry Noun

    study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

    circumstance Noun

    condition or situation.

    corpse Noun

    dead body.

    fertility Noun

    capacity of soil to sustain plant growth; or the average number of children born to women in a given population.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fertility
    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    gruesome Adjective

    gross or violent.

    harvest Noun

    the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.

    invasion Noun

    an attack or move to take possession.

    Iron Age Noun

    last of the prehistoric "three ages," following the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, marked by the use of iron for industry.

    mummy Noun

    corpse of a person or animal that has been preserved by natural environmental conditions or human techniques.

    ritual Noun

    series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.

    sacrifice Noun

    destruction or surrender of something as way of honoring or showing thanks.

    superstitious Adjective

    influenced by legends, spirits, or stories of the supernatural.

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