The ‘bog bodies’ of north-western Europe have captured the imagination of poets as much as archaeologists, confronting us with human remains where time has stopped – allowing us to come ‘face to face’ with individuals from the past. Their exceptional preservation allows us to examine unprecedented details of both their lives and deaths, making us reflect poignantly upon our own mortality. Yet this book argues that they must be resituated within a turbulent world of endemic violence and change, reinterpreting the latest Continental research and new discoveries in this light. The book features a ground-breaking ‘cold case’ forensic study of Worsley Man: Manchester Museum’s ‘bog head’ and brings the bogs to life through both natural history and folklore, as places that were rich, fertile, yet dangerous. Finally, it argues that these remains do not just pose practical conservation problems but philosophical dilemmas, compounded by the critical debate on if – and how – they should be displayed, with museum exemplars drawn from across the globe
Setting the scene for the monograph, this short chapter outlines the importance of the study, its original approach and its timely significance: synthesising and critically evaluating the latest finds from north-western Europe as well as presenting for the first time the original forensic analysis of Manchester’s bog head ‘Worsley Man’, which forms the epicentre of the book. Taking a ‘biographical’ approach to these iconic human remains, the monograph is the first to study the whole life cycle of a bog body: from discovery to conservation, analysis and interpretation, to their exhibition and display, as well as creative ‘afterlife’ in wider cultural imagination. It argues that bog bodies are not a coherent phenomenon representing human sacrifice in later prehistory but instead represent a range of different identities, histories and ends, even if many of these are violent. Ultimately the book defends the special significance of the bog both in terms of its preservative properties and its role as a place rich in resources but animate and dangerous, in the minds of Iron Age and early Roman communities in north-western Europe.
This chapter presents a critical historiography of bog body discovery, from medieval allusions to well-preserved bodies, to seventeenth-century accounts of peat diggers’ finds and eighteenth-century displays of the dead, exhibited by early antiquarians. It argues that we need to appreciate how marvellous preservation was conceptualised in each of these eras, to understand the fate of their remains and the uses to which they were put. It thus examines the changing meaning and significance of such bodies, from icons of national identity in nineteenth-century Denmark to stigmatised victims in Nazi Germany and celebrated ‘Celtic’ princes in neo-pagan Britain. Finally, it foregrounds the forensic trope that dominates contemporary analysis, relating this to the real and suspected murder victims, ancient and modern, found in the mosses and bogs.
One of the key challenges facing archaeologists is how to conserve the remarkable features and evidence of these bog bodies. This chapter briefly reviews changing methods of preservation, from nineteenth-century drying and tanning, to the latest freeze-drying and PEG methods of conserving remains. It draws on first-hand museum interviews with curators and ‘lessons learned’ from past exhibits to evaluate the best methods of preserving the dead. It then considers the philosophical dilemmas posed by conserving bog bodies: interrupting the processes begun by the bog only to try and mimic their preservative powers. The chapter closes with a consideration of aspects of authenticity and aura in relation to the well-preserved dead, arguing that conservation should be recast not as a sleight of hand, but as a form of ongoing ‘care’ for the dead.
This chapter discusses the phenomenon of bogs in the wider context of later prehistoric wetlands. What makes these places unique? How were they perceived and used by those communities? Rejecting the notion of them as mere marginal zones, it conjures their pivotal role as landscapes rich in craft and building materials, ore, fuel, fodder and fowl. Through the use of archival material it examines the disputes fought over rights to use them, the difficulty in mapping them and the folklore associated with their strange properties – ghost or corpse lights, boggarts and ‘hell holes’. It uses ethnography to capture some of the uncanny properties, as well as the dangers of being in the bog, driven by the rewards of the turf.
Having explored what people might have taken from the bog, this chapter examines what they left, in terms of non-human deposits from the bog. It reviews some of the most spectacular bog offerings – wagons, chariotry and horse gear, weapons and cauldrons – as well as the mundane – agricultural tools, foodstuffs, cloth and jewellery, even hair. The chapter will focus on the phenomena of bog butter and consider if this reveals a knowledge of the preservative properties of the bog. Having conjured the range of depositions made, it will then consider how we interpret these acts: were they gifts or exchanges with supernatural beings, gods or deities? Or do we need to de-sacralise our interpretations and accept that it was in the act of giving up that things achieved their true value in a shifting and threatening world. Finally, it will end with the phenomenon of the bog figures, to reflect on these ideas and make the bridge with the real bodies found in their depths.
This chapter will review the lives and deaths of individuals who end up in the bogs: evaluating the competing arguments for their fate, from accidental death to suicide, burial, murder, execution and sacrifice. It will explore the lives they lived, from unique insights into diet, disease and personal appearance, to mobility, origin and status, which can be gleaned from their remains. Who were they? What life had they lived up until this point? This chapter will discuss new evidence that some bogs were used in later prehistory as part of the mortuary process, using the preservative powers of its waters and temporary immersion to slow time before final burial. The chapter seeks to temper the classical authors’ accounts of barbarism or sacrifice within a wider appreciation of the motives and mindsets of later prehistoric communities, often facing considerable periods of environmental change or political unrest. It will normalise the apparent brutality we see in the bog bodies alongside other wetland and dryland remains, arguing that they represent one end of a spectrum of violence deployed as a strategy of control: using the ethnography of violence to understand – if not to excuse – the violence we witness in these remains.
This chapter presents an original re-analysis of ‘Worsley Man’: Manchester Museum’s bog head, incorporating a new radiocarbon date, forensic analysis of trauma and identification of cause of death, isotopic analysis of hair, histological analysis of both human tissue and supposed animal tissue ‘ligature’, HMXIF scan and conservation history. It will include a specific consideration of the power of the ‘head’ in cultural history and the specific connotations it might have had for the ancient Britons as well as their Roman conquerors (including a section here on the Insus cavalryman figure). It will also highlight the Lancashire phenomenon of the ‘screaming skull’ that, once found, must be cared for and kept close to the living, as a way of understanding the feelings of ownership and belonging often attached to the ancient dead.
Academic research has questioned the ethics of displaying such visceral and disquieting remains, especially when they have died very violently. Yet the general public are often firmly attached to their local ‘bog body’, giving them personal names and petitioning vigorously for their repatriation to local museums (as in the case of Lindow Man). This chapter will present a critical review of how different museums display their bog bodies and illustrate ‘best practice’ examples and novel museological interpretive strategies: defending the importance of keeping bog bodies on display to open up conservations about death, loss and mortality.
Bog bodies have inspired poets, authors, artists and musicians, exerting a power over the present that is unique in archaeology. This chapter features some of the best-known examples, examining why they have caught the public imagination and how they can be used to talk to us about issues in the present, confirming their status not only as archaeological icons but moving individuals whose lives and deaths have much to teach us about human nature.