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Silent Witnesses

Fergus O’Donoghue

Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, foreword by Val McDermid, Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £18.95, ISBN 978-0500051825

Contemporary culture is not very comfortable with the fact of death, nor with its certainty. Our increased average lifespan may be encouraging us to regard life’s end as something vaguely in the distance rather than the quite immediate prospect it was for our many short-lived ancestors. The brutal fact of death seems softer when we speak of somebody “passing away”, and that term is now being shortened to “passed”. Twentieth century Britons used to say “passed on”, but many are no longer so convinced there is anywhere we can pass to.

There is a growing interest in archaeology and in ancestry and genealogical research has boomed. An increasing number of us know our DNA (my own Y chromosome, by the way, is Rb1, which is the basic Irish male haplogroup). Archaeology tells us a lot about how our ancestors lived. A deeper knowledge of our past is perhaps some compensation for our loss of assurance about our individual immortality.

Looking at ancient bodies is part of the museum experience. The Egyptian Galleries of the British Museum are among the most visited and are packed from a few minutes after they open. Mummified bodies are decorative and interesting. They are displayed with the unspoken reassurance that the people concerned died naturally. There is less comfort, however, in looking at the bodies of people who died violently. The Chinese terracotta warriors are beautiful, but few museums would mount a display of the skeletons of the dozens of men and women who were routinely slaughtered to accompany Mesopotamian kings into the afterlife.

Individual killings are even more disturbing. Was the younger of the two women in the Oseberg Ship Burial (now in the Viking Ship Museum at Oslo) a sacrificial victim to accompany the older woman, who died of cancer, or was hers also a natural death? Among the Incas, who selected the children who were taken up to the High Andes and given a soporific drink before their heads were smashed in? These discoveries lead us towards the uncomfortable side of excavation, far from old earthworks, field patterns and ancient rubbish dumps.

Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s book offers a walk on the dark side of archaeology. Hundreds of bodies have been found in bogs all over northern and western Europe, so “bog bodies” is the term used to describe them. Modern forensic techniques have made it easier to learn a lot from them, as they have also with “Oetzi”, a man killed in the Tyrolean Alps in about 3300 BC and preserved in a glacier. Aldhouse-Green concentrates on the Iron Age and the Roman period, looking at twenty-five finds, some with more than one body.

Bog bodies fascinate many museum visitors, but the amount of attention given to them depends on the size of the museum. Lindow Man (actually the second of three finds in one bog) is lost amidst the vastness of the British Museum, but it is hard to avoid the much larger exhibition of bog bodies in the heart of Dublin, on the ground floor of the National Museum. “Kingship and Sacrifice” is one of the most visited sections in the Museum’s Kildare Street branch. It is an exhibition centred on four ancient bodies found in Irish bogs. Many visitors find it fascinating though some find it disturbing or repellent. “Kingship and Sacrifice” is clear about its broader context, which is the finding of many bodies in bogs across a vast sweep of territory that covers many modern states. Some of those bodies are medieval or more recent, hence the foreword by Val McDermid, whose crime novels rely on forensic evidence rather than the pure deduction of traditional detective fiction. This book focuses on bodies that can be dated from about 900 BC to AD 400. They have been found in Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands, northern Germany and Denmark.

As the author points out, the great majority of bog bodies belong to peoples who spoke Germanic rather than Celtic languages. They survive because bogs preserve bodies, and because bog burials were not the normal rite of burial in the Iron Age, when bodies were cremated and the ashes placed in pots. Modern technology helps in the preservation and study of bog bodies, but, conversely, modern peat-cutting machinery often severely damages the bodies it uncovers.

Aldhouse-Green, who is professor emerita of archaeology at Cardiff University, writes well and uses many illustrations to enhance her text. She tries to make sense of the extreme violence evident in the methods by which the victims were killed: strangling, hanging, garrotting, cutting of throats. This is unpleasant to read, but the scientific approach to the questions creates a distance from the horror. If it was punitive killing, why do the bog bodies include children and the disabled? Were the dead surrogates for a high-ranking person, needed to avenge the wrath of a god? Was the mistreatment of bodies intended to weaken the spirits of the dead and make them incapable of revenge? Was the killing magical as well as ritual? Why were so many of them staked under water, so that they could not rise to the bog surface?

Aldhouse-Green agrees with the Kildare Street exhibition in discussing the “water deposition” of swords and other valued objects found in lakes, rivers and bogs, commenting that, in the Iron Age, a horse or a sword might be more valuable than a slave. Human sacrifice was comparatively rare in the Iron Age and it is highly unlikely that all the bog bodies were human sacrifices; some were murder victims. Many, however, were killed in ways that show an element of ritual, and so there is a religious aspect.

It the religious aspect of the killings that leads this book into a territory which is as uncertain as the bogs themselves. The bodies come from a culture, or cultures, that left no written records, so archaeologists rely on references from men, such as Strabo (died c AD 27) and Tacitus (died after AD 117), who lived in the Roman empire and reported what they had been told about the lifestyle and rituals of people living beyond the imperial frontiers. In some cases, such as the way hair was worn by some tribes, archaeology supports the Roman writers, but the territory is too wide and the peoples too disparate for any general conclusions to be arrived at. Anything written by Roman authors about druidism, or any other aspect of “barbarian” religion, should be treated with suspicion. Woodhouse-Green says that “… the ritual killing of people … is likely to have been conducted by those who enjoyed senior rank in their communities”, but no evidence is offered to support this supposition. Indeed there is a little too much use of “may”, “might” and even “I can imagine”.

For an Irish reader, it is significant that Woodhouse-Green disagrees fundamentally with our National Museum’s exhibit title “Kingship and Sacrifice”, which may now be described as the Authorised Version of the Irish presentation and interpretation of bog bodies. Woodhouse-Green, however, does not support Dr Ned Kelly’s belief that Oldcroghan Man’s pierced nipples are part of a ritual associated with early medieval Irish kingship, since he died about 300 BC but the earliest textual references to kingship ceremonies are nearly a thousand years later. Kelly’s theory about bog bodies and ancient boundaries is not accepted because “[he] bases his supposition upon later, medieval kingship and royal land division … I am not convinced of the validity of back-projection and the assumption that early historical territories in any way match the situation in the Iron Age. In any case, we have no firm evidence for the presence of political boundaries in prehistoric Ireland, although some linear earthworks might be so interpreted”. This makes for a fundamental disagreement with the explanations offered by our National Museum. One wonders are there Irish archaeologists who share her doubts.

There is a resonance in the names of the places where the bodies have been found and which have become the names of the anonymous victims: Tollund Man (Denmark), Lindow Man (in fact three men, found in Cheshire in England), Uchter Moor Girl (Lower Saxony), Yde Girl (Netherlands), Oldcroghan Man (Co Offaly) and Clonycavan Man (Co Meath). Forensic archaeologists can learn a lot about them, and all the others. Unfortunately, the bogs make it very hard to recover their DNA, but they can be regarded in Ireland as our kin, or, indeed, our ancestors.

Cashel Man, found in Co Laois in 2011, died of multiple wounds, perhaps as early as 2000 BC, so he predates the Iron Age. Moydrum Man, found in Co Westmeath in December 2012, dates from about 700 BC, but it is not clear how he died. They and the other bog bodies are people who lived during, or even before, the Iron Age. We have to respect their distance from us and not try to narrow it; that mistake can be made even by experts: the reconstructed face and head of Yde Girl has been given a hairstyle that makes her look like Twiggy, a fashion model of the 1960s.

Bogs, says the author, are “liminal places”, where danger lurks and where people do not wander. People cross bogs with intent, not casually. Many bogs were vast. The people killed there may have been thank-offerings to the gods of the marshes, but the violence suggests a far more complex interpretation and raises a question: did the killers know that bogs preserve bodies? The author says: “We can be fairly certain that the perpetrators wished these bodies to be placed in spiritually charged, dangerous places, where they would never decay.” That, however, presumes a scientific knowledge that may not have been common in the Iron Age.

One of the earliest books on Tollund Man extrapolated massively from the evidence and imagined him, as a future sacrificial victim, being taken on a triumphant tour of the region before his murder. This is fantasy. Similarly, a writer on the victims of Inca child sacrifices wrote of the family being honoured by the choice and the child being taken on a similar triumphal tour, prior to ascent of the mountain and murder. This somewhat rosy picture was contradicted by an Argentinian archaeologist, who found that one boy, who was aged about nine, was so terrified that he vomited the traditional soporific drink before his skull was ceremonially fractured.

Aldhouse-Green makes one of her most important statements at the very end of her footnotes, when, citing her own earliest teacher of archaeology, she writes “… all that can be achieved is a construction based upon evidence, it is true, but evidence that has huge gaps and is inevitably heavily contaminated with our own modern context and mindset”. This is also the opinion of those now studying the remains of the Pompeian victims of the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. Estelle Lazer, an Australian forensic anthropologist at Pompeii, has said: “These people had lives, real stories that deserve to be told, not those superimposed on them over time.” Treating ancient bodies with respect, the archaeologist or museum visitor avoids ghoulishness.

The Mute Stones Speak is the title of a bestselling and much reprinted study of Italian archaeology. Aldhouse-Green helps the mute bodies of Iron Age people to speak. As her sub-title makes clear, archaeologists are solving an ancient European mystery, but there is no agreed solution. Given the vastness of the geographical expanses and the long time frame, that lack of agreement is not surprising.

The bog bodies of Iron Age Europe bring us very close to our remote ancestors. Their very existence represents the triumph of victims over killers. We do not know their names, nor the languages they spoke, nor what they thought and what they believed, but we do know that their killers tried to obliterate them; and that they failed.


Fergus O’Donoghue SJ was editor of Studies from 2001 to 2011. He lives at Saint Francis Xavier Community, Gardiner Street, Dublin.