One thing that many ancient, mummified bodies exhumed from bogs have in common is that they suffered violent deaths.
They can have slashed throats, broken noses, shattered skulls, sliced abdomens, missing bowels — all signs of deliberate violence inflicted upon them before they were cast into their soft, muddy graves.
Experts know this because bog bodies, which often date back thousands of years and have fascinated scholars and writers for centuries, are extremely well-preserved.
The chemical properties of the soft, mossy, oxygen-poor environment allow a body to be so extremely unspoiled that “you feel he will open his eyes and talk to you,” Karin Margarita Frei, a bog body research scientist at the National Museum of Denmark, told National Geographic. “It’s something that not even [the mummified body of Egyptian king] Tutankhamun could make you feel.”
The corpse that Frei is describing is a body named Tollund Man, perhaps the most popular bog body. He was discovered by two brothers who were trimming peat from a bog in Tollund village in Denmark in 1950.
After uncovering the man, they found that he was so carefully preserved that he “looked as though he had only just passed away,” journalist Kristen C. French wrote for Nautilus. “His eyelashes, chin stubble, and the wrinkles in his skin were visible; his leather cap was intact. Suspecting murder, the brothers called the police in nearby Silkeborg, but the body wasn’t what it seemed.”
After a careful chemical analysis of the man’s stomach, experts confirmed that the body had been lying, untouched, at the bottom of that bog for more than 2,000 years. He was from the third century B.C., French reports, and had lived during the pre-Roman Iron Age.
And conforming to the trend of many bog bodies, he appeared to have been hanged, and then tossed into this mossy grave.
While it seems improbable that a several thousand-year-old body can remain delicately preserved — often with its intestines, skin, nails, hair, stomach contents, and clothes in exquisite condition — it makes sense that the conditions are just right for body conservation.
Bogs harbour brown, soil-like, spongy deposits of peat, acidic water, and thick carpets of sphagnum moss. When a person dies and is deposited in a regular grave, bacteria and maggots feast on the flesh and tissues. This is what causes the body to decompose quickly. In fact, maggots can consume 60% of a body within a week.
But the conditions in a bog are unforgiving for these body-munchers. Bacteria and maggots generally need oxygen and, in the case of bacteria, a high pH to survive. Deep down in bogs, oxygen is scant and the pH tends to be low (acidic). This, along with a naturally antimicrobial molecule found in dying peat moss, called sphagnan, provides the quintessential recipe for bog body preservation.
When bacteria decompose dead bodies, they leach enzymes which then react with sphagnan. This causes the pH within the area to drop, making it more acidic, which then kills the bacteria.
The sphagnan also pulls calcium from bones, which leaves them with a bendy, rubbery consistency. It also has the ability to dissolve bones completely, according to Nautilus. In addition to the sphagnan, humic acid in peat moss also pulls water from the soft tissues of the body, turning them into a tough, hide-like material, furthering its preservation.
Nearly 1,000 bodies have been pulled from bogs, and a couple hundred have been carefully analysed, according to Nautilus. Scientists believe that many were brutally sacrificed or murdered and intentionally thrown into bogs, creating mass graves, though some appear to have passed away peacefully.
However the details of their death, bogs serve as inquisitive tombs, expertly preserving the curious lives of those who lived thousands of years before our time.
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