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
correspondence between two men of science alludes to the bogbodies that have become known (somewhat ironically) as the ‘Hope couple’ (van der Sanden 1996 : 19). While a historic case, whose tragic end on the upland peat bog of Hope Woodland was well documented by the local vicar, Wormald, this telling line in Balguy’s letter alludes to a phenomenon of peat preservation that was apparently well known by the locals. Balguy had grown up in the parish of Hope; his forebears were ‘Overseers of the Poor’ and their signatures litter the accounts of small payments to widows and
Introduction: ‘exposed for a sight’
The first attested ‘exhibiting’ of bogbodies appears to be the Hope couple, who died in a snowstorm in the Peak District of northern Britain in 1674 (see Chapter 2 ). Following their burial on the spot when the snow had melted, they lay undisturbed in the ‘peat moss’ for ‘twenty-eight years and nine months’ when the curiosity of the locals got the better of them. Dr Charles Balguy, the medic from Peterborough who had grown up in Hope, attributes this interest to the parishioners’ knowledge of peat’s preservative properties
our lives. His point is that archaeology is not some neat, systematic endeavour uncovering history in a sequential manner. It is messy, confusing and disconcerting. It comes at us in the midst of our own lives where we must make sense of it; thus the past is always in dialogue with the issues and concerns of the present. This book has taken that moment of irruption as its starting point, following the afterlife of the bogbody: how it was reburied or revived, investigated and interpreted. It has followed how the meanings of these remains have changed through time
From the earliest antiquarian letters to the poetic evocations of Heaney, the words used to describe bogbodies conjure their remarkable yet unsettling power. They are ‘entire and uncorrupted’ (Leigh 1700 : 65), found as ‘in a common posture of sleep’ (de la Pryme 1870 : 983), ‘as fresh as if death had occurred the preceding day’ (Gear 1883 , cited in Cowie et al. 2011 : 8). Yet the bog has inevitably altered and stained these remains; they are described by Low as ‘rolled up in their own leather’ (cited in Anderson 1879 : liii) or ‘tanned
Once upon a time, these heads and limbs existed in order to express and embody the needs and impulses of an individual human life. They were the vehicles of different biographies and they compelled singular attention, they proclaimed ‘I am I’. Even when they were first dead, at the moment of their sacrifice or atrocity, their bodies and their limbs manifested biography and conserved vestiges of personal identity: they were corpses. But when a corpse becomes a bogbody, the personal identity drops away; the bogbody does not proclaim ‘I am I’; instead it says
accoutrements might have travelled. Casting the net of bogbodies wider to include skeletonised remains from places such as Sweden has allowed specialists to examine aspects of welfare and disease, which sheds a rather different light on those who ended up in the bog. Non-invasive computed tomography (CT) scanning can refine the litany of ante- and peri-mortem trauma, while forensic knowledge has enabled us to both observe subtle injuries we once missed and to write off some of the apparent ‘overkill’ we see as the result of compression in the bog or post-mortem damage during
) brought the bogbodies into the public light, Heaney’s poems magnified their meaning, giving them a contemporary resonance. Yet those poems also made people look again at the bog landscape. Heaney brought a dwelling eye to the place, making us see them again, not as a marginal landscape or cultural backwater, but as the place he was born and brought up: an omphalos, the navel of the world that surrounded it (Heaney 2002 : 1). He did not shy away from their dangers but showed how such fear could be mobilised in the cultural imagination, while also bringing to light its
Introduction: things in bogs
Having conjured a sense of what people were doing in bogs, what they took from them and some of the experiences they had while doing so, this chapter turns to what they left there. If we are to understand the presence of bogbodies they need to be situated within the range of other non-human objects, materials and substances that people lowered into the moss (Burmeister 2013 ). A few of these served as wrappings or accoutrements to the human remains but most of them were stand-alone deposits in their own right: things given up out
skeletal evidence; as far as we know, this may be the first time that the forensic examination of an external/internal wound site has been possible for a bogbody, permissible here only by the fact that the surviving facial tissue can be ‘taken off’ the underlying bone ( Figures 7.6a and 7.6b ). This wound suggests the use of a sword rather than a heavier bladed weapon, wielded from behind, to the right-hand side of the head while he was standing – this may have been the first major blow.
7.6a Exterior sword wound.
7.6b Interior sharp-force wound to mastoid