Mummies. The word evokes images of dusty Egyptian tombs, filled with the treasures of a bygone age left by a people who firmly believed that preserving the mortal remains of the dead would insure their eternity. However, while Egyptian mummies are some of the most famous, the term really refers to any preserved body, whether the preservation was intentional or not. Elmer McCurdy was a fairly well preserved mummy from the 19th century, while Jeremy Bentham was far older but not quite so well preserved.
A little degradation is expected though. After all, death is pretty hard on a person. Still, some mummies manage to look uncannily alive, decades or even centuries after their demise. Rosalie Lombardo looks as if she is merely sleeping, as does the embalmed remains of Vladimir Lenin. But those bodies underwent intentional and meticulous preservation techniques. More amazing still are the bodies that, through a combination of luck and environmental factors, come out of the ground looking alive, even after thousands of years. The best preserved of the natural mummies are the creepy and fascinating bog mummies. Found all over northern Europe, these ancient bodies remain an enduring mystery.
Bog mummies are preserved in the peat bogs that dot northern Europe. Peat consists of masses of dead plant matter. The peat provides an anaerobic environment, meaning oxygen free, that prevents bacterial grown. Peat is also rich in tannic acid, that also helps to discourage bacterial growth. Tannic acid is used to make leather, which is partially why bodies pulled out of bogs have darkened skin and a leathery appearance.
Peat, being composed of densely packed plant matter, is a valuable fuel source. Peat cutters are most often the ones who discover bog bodies, and they have done so since at least the 19th century, when peat cutting for fuel really began on an industrial scale. The bodies are often mangled by peat cutting and processing machines. Some bodies that survived the trauma of being yanked out of the bog were, in the 19th century at least, ground up into mummy powder. Even so, the uncannily preserved remains provide a window into a world that has long since passed away. Ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes did not leave behind written records. The only way we have to understand how they lived are through their archeological sites and burial sites. Bog bodies are so well preserved that it gives archeologists a glimpse into what the people of that time ate, their susceptibility to disease, and other factors that would have remained unknown from just studying their artifacts.
An enduring mystery
Even so, many mysteries surround the bodies. Most of the bodies come out of the ground in terrible physical shape, having suffered crushing injuries, horrific beatings, stabbings, and with nooses around their necks indicating strangling. For years, most assumed that the bodies were the results of human sacrifices, perhaps meant to appease the gods and spirits living in the bog to insure a good harvest. The good health of many bodies coupled with the extreme violence of the killings seemed to support the notion. Perhaps the ancients were sacrificing the best among them–the nobility or possibly even a king–to the gods in penance for a perceived sin. Of course, this didn’t account for differences between cultures. Perhaps mummies from Celtic cultures wound up in bogs for different reasons than those from Germanic cultures. Perhaps the many of the killings were not religious in nature at all, but we are finding dump sites of ancient serial killers. After all, there had to be murder and mayhem in those days as well, and the urge to avoid being found out would be the same for them as it is now. Chuck a body in the bog and it may well never be found, until at least a few thousand years later.
The fact is that each bog body wound up in its burial site for a unique reason. Perhaps many were victims of human sacrifice. Many might also have been ancient murder victims whose killers will never be brought to justice. And maybe a fair number were simply unfortunates who lost their way on in the marsh and never came out alive. With all the uncertainty surrounding them, bog mummies will remain an enduring mystery that will puzzle archeologists and the public alike for decades to come.
Lange, Karen E. “Tales from the Blog.” NationalGeographic.com. September 2007. National Geographic. June 30, 2014. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/09/bog-bodies/bog-bodies-text/1
Lobell, Jarett A. “Bog Bodies Rediscovered.” Archive.Archaeology.org. May/June 2010. Archaeology. June 30, 2014. http://archive.archaeology.org/1005/bogbodies/