In May 1950, two Danish farmers were cutting peat in Tollund Fen, in the middle of the Jutland Peninsula, when they found a man’s body. His skin was stained a deep, tawny brown, and he was wearing a pointed cap. Around his neck was a rope. Believing they had found evidence of a murder, the men called the police.
In pictures, the Tollund Man’s body appears startlingly fresh, with stubble on his chin and a violent expression on his face. His skin was so well preserved that investigators were later able to take a thumb print. He appears to be suffocating. But he isn’t: The man died more than 2,000 years ago, during Europe’s Iron Age.
Hundreds of bodies have been unearthed from bogs throughout Northern Europe. Some, like the Tollund Man, were initially assumed to be murder victims, and many were reburied in churchyards. The archaeology branch of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin has four of the bodies on display in a group of glass exhibition cases, which allows visitors to peer at individual hairs and study desiccated hands with cleanly clipped nails. Your gaze reaches out across centuries.
The raised bogs of Northern Europe are ideal for preservation. The water in them is highly acidic and low in oxygen, which helps prevent decomposition. The tanning properties of bog moss do the rest. Clothing, tools and even blocks of bog butter have been dug out of the peat. When Danish scientists examined the Tollund Man, they discovered his final meal — gruel — in his large intestine.
The bodies have also been transformed by their time in the bogs. Their hair, where it remains, is a deep and inhuman red. Their bones have often been cracked after hundreds of years of the peat pancaking their bodies. Even their exhumation can become a kind of violent metamorphosis, as the open air accelerates the long-postponed decomposition.
Many of the people found in the bogs had been executed. The Tollund Man was almost certainly hanged, while others appear to have been disemboweled, decapitated or bled from the throat. One young boy, unearthed in Northern Germany, appeared to be blindfolded. The intention with which the bodies were interred — as with a woman, also discovered on the Jutland Peninsula, whose body was pinned down with stakes — suggested a ritualistic aim. In his book “The Bog People,” P.V. Glob, a former director general of museums and antiquities for Denmark, argued that the unearthed were either criminals or sacrificial victims, killed to appease ancient gods.
In analyzing its own holdings, the National Museum of Ireland emerged with a different interpretation, emphasizing the inherently political nature of the deaths. Found near ancient seats of power, the bodies display characteristics of the Iron Age upper class, from fine clothes to hair gel. Trimmed nails, in this view, point more toward a violent transfer of power than a primitive blood rite.
Eamonn P. Kelly, the museum’s former keeper of Irish antiquities, has posited that kings may have been executed for failing to ensure adequate food for their people, a problem that worsened in the sixth century, when Europe’s climate began to change. How fitting that their bodies, usually discovered during the cutting of peat, which is burned for energy, have become unexpected climate revenants, like the ice mummies disgorged by retreating glaciers or the diseases thought dead forever beneath melting permafrost.
When I first came upon the Dublin bodies, I was barely out of college, living thinly on a temporary work visa. At that point in my life, I spent my months thrilled by the ready access to deep time: ogham stones, passage tombs, Bronze Age barrows, ring forts, all marked in red on my collection of survey maps. I was sure that I could construct a narrative of the past large enough to contain me, a certain thing on which I could steady myself.
Bog bodies can be exasperating because their shocking and impossible survival does not yield as much information as you might wish for. Criminals, fallen kings, sacrificial victims, they are almost perversely unrepresentative of the everyday life of their lost societies. The indisputable physical fact of the body turns out to be a blind alley, a mask that obscures as much as it reveals about its identity: names, memories, experiences, epiphanies.
Everything that matters, the bog bodies tell us, is one day lost. In the museum, I press my face up to their glass cases, and I’m reminded of how limited our knowledge of their world is. Of course, the past does not exist to be explained. It is sovereign, peculiar and particular. To accept this is to accept the freedom of our own place in our own time, unique and peculiar in itself.
But that’s not to say our worlds are entirely disconnected. In their introduction to a reissue of Glob’s book, the scholars Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber note that the people who deposited the bodies found in this era had likely come across other burials in the bogs, whether sacrificial victims or criminals or deposed kings, from earlier eras than their own. The Tollund Man was himself laid in a pre-existing cutting. The past has its own past.
When our Anthropocene remains are unearthed in 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 years, what will be understood of our own inexplicable, sacrificial rituals? Face to face with the bodies, you would see skin and bones, hair and clothes, and what else? Suggesting everything, they explain nothing.