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Weird History: Bog Bodies

I was a tragedy kid growing up in the sense that I read everything I could about macabre histories. The sinking of the Titanic. The horrors of the Donner Party. The Hindenburg Explosion. Survival tales from the Whaleship Essex. I remember paying particular attention in school when we talked about Pompeii and how partially mummified bodies were uncovered after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. It left quite the impression, which is why I was surprised that none of my history or science classes ever covered the "bog bodies" of Europe.

"Bog bodies" have been recovered in England, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Through radiocarbon dating, some of these remains have been traced back to the Iron Age somewhere between 500 BCE and 100 CE.

What makes bog bodies unique? The chemistry of the bog in which the remains are found preserves them in remarkable ways. You can see the creases in their skin. Distinct facial features. Sometimes even hair. Joshua Levine explains in Smithsonian Magazine:

"The best-preserved bodies were all found in raised bogs, which form in basins where poor drainage leaves the ground waterlogged and slows plant decay. Over thousands of years, layers of sphagnum moss accumulate, eventually forming a dome fed entirely by rainwater. A raised bog contains few minerals and very little oxygen, but lots of acid. Add in low Northern European temperatures, and you have a wonderful refrigerator for conserving dead humans…Soon after burial, the acid starts tanning the body’s skin, hair and nails. As the sphagnum moss dies, it releases a carbohydrate polymer called sphagnan. It binds nitrogen, halting growth of bacteria and further mummifying the corpse. But sphagnan also extracts calcium, leached out of the body’s bones. This helps to explain why, after a thousand or so years of this treatment, a corpse ends up looking like a squished rubber doll."

The first bog bodies were discovered in the 17th century and today, scientists utilize all kinds of resources to learn as much about newly discovered bodies as possible. According to National Geographic, the oldest bog body on record in a 25-year-old Danish woman who died around 8,000 BCE. She is known as the Koelbjerg Woman.

Some of these bodies are so well-preserved, scientists can examine what they ate as their last meal or, in the case of the Tollund Man in 1976, pull fingerprints off the mummified body.

Experts have extensively studied these bodies to determine each individual cause of death as well with varying levels of success. It is believed that some of them died by falling into the bog accidentally and drowning. Others, however, include evidence that suggest these people were sacrificed at the bogs for ritualistic purposes.

I could write about bog bodies all day, but nothing quite makes up for seeing them yourself. If you want to view some photographs (viewer discretion advised) you can check out several images at Britannica or PBS.

Recently, the podcast Criminal did an entire episode about bog bodies. You can listen to it for free here. The My Favorite Murder podcast also covered bog bodies in episode 294, which you can listen to for free here.

[Image Credit: photo by Aditya Thakur via Pexels]

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