Bog Bodies. "Sacrificial Executions".
by Evlampia Tsireli
A mummy of 3,000 years old found in a boggy area of Ireland at the county of Lais, considered to be a king of the Iron Age who had been sacrificed by his countrymen. The multiple cutouts testified that the victim had been ritually cut, according to the "threefold death" in which the sacrificed person should die in three different ways successively: Hanging, usually of a tree, drowning and at the end the final injury with a spear or sword or hit with another kind of weapon. According to the Celtic tradition, these three different ways reflected the three different qualities of the god or goddess to whom the body was offered. The ritual sacrifices were performed by Druids and it said that they were a way to feed the earth goddess who constantly need new bodies. Regarding the sacrifices of kings in the ancient world, there was a tradition, according to which when a king was beginning to age, was ritually sacrificed to be replaced by a younger one.
However, experts' opinions are divided. The dominant theories about the death of these people is that a) they are ritual sacrifices of kings and b) they are executions of criminals or persons who generally were no longer useful to society because of physical or mental deficiencies.
Some of the most famous bog bodies that have been found are: the Bocksten Man (1290-1430 BC) in Sweden, the Cladh Hallan mummies (1600-1300 BC) in Scotland, the great Tollund Man (400 BC) in Denmark who still maintains his expression and the rope around his neck, the Lindow Man (112-119 AD) in England, the Old Kroghan Man (362-175 BC) in Ireland, the Grauballe Man (310 BC) in Denmark and the Lindow Man (2003) in Ireland.
Of these, the Grauballe Man, the Lindow Man and the Tollund Man, are the most preserved bodies available for study.
Studies have showed that the preservation of the bodies is not only due to low temperatures and lack of oxygen in the mud, but also to a moss species which, when dies, releases some ingredients, which in combination with the nitrogen does not leave the bacteria of the water to carry the decomposition. That is also responsible for the dark color of the skin of the mummies, as well as and for the red color of their hair. Also, most of the bog bodies bear signs of hanging, beheading, hit in the back of the head and strangulation. Tollund Man was discovered in Denmark in 1950. By the method of C14, the suspicions of professor of archeology at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Glob, were verified. It was a very ancient body. The mummy came from the Iron Age. Two years after the discovery of Tollund Man, close to the same area and in particular in Nebelgard Fen, another great mummy was discovered. The Grauballe Man.
Professor Glob published a book (The Bog People, 1965) describing the Danish findings. Within four years the book was translated into English and became a best seller.
In 1983 a skull was found in Lindow Moss (Lindow bog body) in Cheshire and Professor Don Brothwell placed it at the first century AD. Next year, at the same area was found the Lindow Man, and various of his body members in the years 1987 and 1988. Professor Brothwell conducted an extensive study on Lindow Man, while two other bodies were found in 2003 in Ireland, one in Deingin, in the County of Offaly (Old Kroghan Man), and one in Klonycavan, in Meath County (Klonycavan Man). In August 2011 another body was found, which is being studied until today by Simon Kelly at the National Museum of Ireland. This recent finding, known as Cashel Man, dates to the Bronze Age. The oldest however body has been found in Kelberg Denmark and is a woman of 6,000 BC. In Grauballe Man is apparent the point of strangulation.
He was found with his face down (the flipping of the body may reveal some kind of local concept of the afterlife), naked, while his body had become almost flat because of time spent in the mud. His skin was brown and his hair red, due to the environmental conditions. His eyes were tightly closed with the bulbs still in. When, after twenty one days, his body was turned over on its back, the cause of death was obvious: A deep cut throat that completely severing the carotid, pharynx, esophagus and jugular (vein in the neck). There were no signs of hanging, and after radiological studies, the experts discovered a crack in the skull and one in the tibia. The bones although they had ost their calcium in the bog environment, Kept their collagen unaffected, so the shape of the bones was perfectly preserved. The internal organs had been preserved too. Inside the stomach of Grauballe Man was found porridge of cereals and sixty six kinds of herbs. The same porridge was found also in the stomach of Tollund Man with the sixty six kinds of herbs, however, it was affected by a type of fungus with devastating results on the body. The Lindow Man was found in Cheshire, England in two phases. First archaeologists discovered one foot and then the torso with the head. He was found with the face in the mud with a very unnatural bend of the neck, since the rest of the body was back. He had a throttling collar wrapped around the neck and he was naked with a six cm incision in the neck. Also, he had a crack in the skull and an acute spinal dislocation. The investigations showed that the blow to the head was made after his death. In total, he suffered a blow to the head, piercing with a sharp object, strangulation, while the incision in the neck caused by the pressure of the collar. In his stomach was found cereal porridge and burnt bread made of wheat and barley.
From the Klonycavan Man, who was found at Meath County of Ireland, it is saved the head and the torso. The skull was opened with a sharp object, probably an ax. He also received a blow to the nose that cut it off and split the face in two. Amazingly, because he was short, he used to stand up the hair with a kind of ancient gel to appear taller.
Experts say that if they were sacrifices then there should be also other items that accompany the dead. The fact that the Celts used rich burials with precious objects, while the mummies were found naked in the bogs, may reveal a discredited people. We might say that they were actually criminals or people of low reputation, who suffered a ritual execution. The idea that the mummies were kings, who sacrificed for the new crop or due to poor harvests, cannot stand, because the bodies were found do not look malnourished. Instead they were fed very well and proof of this is the rich food found in their stomachs. Also, a general examination of the body testifies normal diet during the last months of their lives.
Another element that excludes the ritual sacrifice of kings, when they grow old in order to be replaced by someone younger, is that the victims were mostly young people. Also, according to the tradition of the threefold death of the shamans which was to fall off the cliff, hung upside down from a tree root with his head downwards soaked in water and then drown, nor it gives light to the enigma of mummies, as these dead shall not have suffered any of these ways of death.
So we are left with the case of the execution. Is it really about executions of undesirable and criminal persons? Or about ritual executions, so detailed and skillful that victims continue to be hit, after their death, as evidenced by blows to the back of the skull?
This technique of mummification is unique and very peculiar. The question is if the people of that era knew the qualities of the bogs that would keep the bodies so well preserved for many centuries? It seems that they knew very well indeed. Now, the reason for why they wanted to preserve bodies of criminals and undesirable persons (possibly) through the centuries, will probably never be known, as there are no written records that old – if it is about the Celts.
Personally I think that they are a combination of sacrifice and execution. Namely that it is ritual executions of criminals and undesirables, whose bodies were offered to deities, and this explains the typical and the rigor. I would name them “Sacrificial Executions”.
(english translation by Athanasios Koutoupas)
This article is part of the book "Death in Celtic Mythology and Tradition", by Evlampia Tsireli
Greek article Οι μούμιες των Βάλτων. "Θυσιαστικές Εκτελέσεις".
- Brookes, Patricia, The Bog Bodies, (dissertation) postgrad Higher Diploma in Arts (Archaeology), National University of Ireland, Galway, 2012.
-Connolly, R.C., «Lindow Man, Britain’s Prehistoric Bog Body», Anthropology Today, 1,5, 1985.
-Costello, Eugene, «Beithígh ar buaile: Transhumance in 19th and 20th century Ireland» , AYIA 2011, Conference Proceedings.
-Joy, J., Lindow Man, British Museum Press, 2009.
-Kelly, E.P., «Secrets of the bog bodies, the enigma of the Iron Age explained», Archaeology Ireland, 20, 1, 2006.
-MacBain, Alexander, Celtic Mythology and Religion, 2005.
- Sanders, Karin, Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination, USA, 2009.
See also list of Bog Bodies.