A new study analyzing 1000 bodies recovered from wetlands across Europe has concluded that the burial practice emerged in the deep-prehistoric period and continued until early modern times. Furthermore, the researchers found that most of the bog mummies showed signs of “overkill”.
The new study was published in the journal Antiquity by Professor Roy van Beek from the Soil Geography and Landscape Group , based at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The team of scientists analyzed a database of 266 individual archaeological sites from which more than 1000 bog mummies, skeletons and disarticulated/partial skeletal remains were recovered.
Up until now the study of bog bodies has greatly focused on individual discoveries, but Roy van Beek says the “broader spatial and temporal trends” have been greatly neglected as a result. However, now, for the first time, this team has presented “a large-scale” overview of bog bodies.
Bog mummy of a young woman, found in 1936 in a bog in Estonia. The woman died in the late 17th or early 18th century and is one of the few known finds from eastern Europe. (Estonian National Museum/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
The Difference Between Bog Mummies and Skeletons
The landscapes of Northern Europe are peppered with wetlands which are rightfully called “mires” but are more often referred to as “bogs.” The team of scientists describes such landscapes as “peatlands,” where active peat formation took, or still takes place. And almost all of the around 1000 bog bodies discovered across Europe and analyzed in the new study were found during drainage work and peat extraction.
In the study the researchers used the two terms: “bog mummies” and “bog skeletons.” This distinguishes between human remains discovered with preserved soft tissue and/or hair, and those that are only skeletal, with no tissue or hair. However, the researchers point out that these two terms only refer to the preservation conditions, rather than indicating ancient human actions.
Bog skeleton Porsmose Man, dating from the Neolithic, met a violent death. Bone arrowheads were found embedded in his skull and sternum. (Nationalmuseet / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Traditions Hampering Time and Spatial Assessments
Traditionally, scientists studying bog mummies made general conclusions based on the study of small groups of well-preserved bog mummies. But this new study interpreted “all” of the discovered bog bodies.
Furthermore, the team wrote in their paper that most previous studies have focused “on specific time frames,” citing most often the Iron Age/Roman period, but they say this approach “hampers an empirical assessment of trends in both time and space”.
Correcting these dogmas from past research, this team used “Western European chronologies” from countries including “Ireland and the UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Poland and the Baltic States.” The researchers stated that their primary goal was to “identify broad spatio-temporal trends in the frequency and general character of finds.”
To achieve this goal they asked if there were any particular time periods that the insertion of bog bodies in northern European mires “peaked.” And also, what distinguishes each phase of burials in relation to “preservation, age at death, biological sex and assumed causes of death”?
At Alken Enge in Denmark, the remains of at least 380 individuals, victims of an armed conflict, were deposited almost 2000 years ago. (Peter Jensen/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Deep-Diving The Bog Body Phenomenon
The team identified “six major chronological phases” in northern European prehistoric and early historic societies. The earliest bog bodies were recovered in southern Sweden and Denmark, and these dated to the fourth millennium BC. Another concentration of bog skeletons found in the English fenlands dated to the later third/early second millennium BC, but it was during the Iron Age and Roman period that the ‘bog body phenomenon’ peaked across the entirety of Northwest Europe. And most medieval bog bodies were found in wetlands in Scotland and Ireland.
Professor Roy van Beek said these findings contribute to the ongoing debates concerning the potentially dynamic and diverse underlying processes and motives relating to the “bog body phenomenon” in the context of death and burial practices.
They Were Violently Killed And Deliberately Buried In Bogs
Regarding “why” people were deposited in mires/bogs there have emerged several popular hypotheses. The most commonly cited is “ritualistic sacrifice,” which the team said perhaps “bolstered super-natural fertility powers” to assure agricultural success.
It is also thought that the bodies of deceased (and sometimes executed) who had “broken social conventions” were not permitted to be buried in regular community cemeteries. The final group suspected of being deposited as bog bodies are described in the paper as “deviants, victims of criminal acts, and those who had suffered accidental deaths like drowning”.
The scientists said that without high-resolution paleoanthropological investigation it is difficult to distinguish between ‘ritualistic’ and other forms of violent deaths like armed conflicts, raids or robberies. However, based on archaeological evidence, and setting aside accidental deaths, almost all of the 1000 bog bodies analyzed in this new study had suffered “violent deaths” which the researchers say reflects “intentional depositions.”
Sometimes Old School Violence Wasn’t Enough
While almost all of the bog mummies studied had suffered “excessive violence,” the team identified that some of the bodies had been brutalized, or subjected to “overkill”. And while in some cases clear evidence of ritual death was present, the researchers said distinguishing between violence and ritual violence “is not always possible, or useful.”
In conclusion, bog burials emerged in the Early/Middle Neolithic and continued unbroken over the next seven millennia.
Top image: Bocksten Man; The Tollund Man as he appears today; Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum; The face of the bog body known as Grauballe man; Porsmose Man Source: CC BY 2.0 / Tollundman.dk / CC BY 3.0 / Public Domain / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ashley Cowie