in Bog bodies


A year after my mother’s death, I leaf through the pages of an old sketchbook. It is filled with ink-and-watercolour sketches of industrial Manchester in the 1950s where she grew up: towering with chimneys, densely packed terraced streets and fairgrounds at night. Towards the back is an unexpectedly pastoral scene: parallel rows of vegetables depict an allotment or market garden, with potting sheds in the middle distance. She has delineated each row with an ebony streak, representing the dark cut of a spade through peat. The city, with its belch of white steam and smog, is distant on the horizon. By a clutch of dock weeds and grass stems in the foreground, she has neatly written ‘10th July, Ashton Moss’.

When I began this book, I did not realise its topic would take me so close to my own past, nor that the archaeological territory of death would gather this raw relevance. I remember her speaking of the pallid stems of celery grown here on the moss as unparalleled in taste. Yet from this fertile mire in the mid-1800s, came a rather different harvest: the dark matter of leathered flesh and stained bone – the skull of at least one ‘bog body’. Known as ‘Ashton Man’, his remains had been deliberately interred in the wet moss in the later Bronze Age to early Iron Age, forming part of a phenomenon found across north-western Europe. Often violently killed, these remains haunt us with their remarkable preservation. They have become archaeological icons, sources of intrigue, fear and creative inspiration.

I first encountered Lennart Larsen’s black-and-white images of Grauballe and Tolland Man as a child, holding open a copy of P. V. Glob’s The Bog People (1969) for my father, as he made slides for teaching. Like many before me, I was fascinated by the finger-tip whorls and worn heels of Grauballe Man, and the leather cap and noose that still looked wet and pliable around Tolland Man’s neck. My father had no qualms about showing his high school students these images, believing that this was an important part of their education: understanding what we could learn from the dead, and how that past shaped our present.

The Ashton head was sent to Cambridge University, to become part of its anatomical collection of crania. His journey from moss to archive shelf is one this book will trace, trying to understand how he (and many others like him) died, why they were buried on the moss, and how we have become fascinated with such ancient remains. In so doing, this research foregrounds the importance of the northern British bog bodies, resituating them within the more famous examples from Scandinavia, Germany and Ireland. This has become both a professional as well as a personal endeavour. When I began teaching archaeology at The University of Manchester, the desiccated remains of a ‘bog head’ known as Worsley Man could be viewed in the Manchester Museum, alongside a facial reconstruction that was the collaborative work of the then curator of archaeology, Professor John Prag, and his medical colleague, Richard Neave. While Worsley Man is no longer to be seen on open view, the chance to work further upon his remains as part of the Manchester Museum team enables me to place his story at the heart of this book, alongside his neighbours from Ashton, Droylsden, Red Moss and Lindow Moss. Elsewhere, I have described this work as an obligation, an act of advocacy for the dead, but it is also, as the late Don Brothwell (1986: 13) put it, an honour.

Bog bodies

Face to face with the past


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