by Sue Stein
As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself
–from the poem The Grauballe Man by Seamus Heaney
One of the many bog mummies recovered from peat bogs in Northern Europe, Grauballe man’s remains were preserved due to the unique chemistry and pH level of the bogs. Bodies found in these bogs were mummified by means of highly acidic water, lack of oxygen, and low temperatures cause the tannins in the water turn the corpse’s skin to a leather-like consistency, while allowing the internal organs to be preserved. In many cases, the bones are dissolved by the acidic conditions, leaving the body to resemble a hollow bag. Other bogs may preserve only the bones, but not the rest of the body – it all depends on the chemistry of the particular bog.
In order to be preserved so completely, the body needs to be completely submerged below the surface, so that the microorganisms that need oxygen to hasten the decomposition process are unable to do their work. Skin, hair, nails, brain, and internal organs can survive, as can clothing made of wool and leather.
Earliest Account of Bog Mummy Discovery
Peat has been used as fuel for centuries; it was originally cut by hand from the bogs, but now machines extract the peat in layers. The earliest account of the discovery of a bog mummy dates to the early 1400’s, when peasants cutting peat in Bonsdorp, Germany found the remains of a man. They reported their find to a priest, who told them to leave the body alone and not give it a Christian burial, because it was obvious that the elves that were known to inhabit the bogs lured the man to his death.
Hundreds of bog mummies have been uncovered accidentally by workers harvesting the peat, with documented records of finds as far back as the 1700’s. Unfortunately, once a body is exhumed from its resting place in its watery grave, it quickly begins to decompose. Many of the bog bodies uncovered prior to effective conservation techniques deteriorated in this manner. Thus, few have been preserved for modern scientists and archaeologists to examine and investigate.
The bodies found were in many cases so well preserved that they looked as if they’d only recently died, but most were in fact thousands of years old, even dating back to more than 10,000 years old. The majority of the bog bodies known today date from the Northern European Iron Age, roughly 700-100 BC. The oldest is the Koelbjerg woman, Neolithic skeletal remains of a 20 year-old woman found in Denmark, dating to 10,000 years ago.
Confronted by these corpses, many of which looked to be recently deceased, many medieval to modern-day villagers opted to rebury them in churchyards, while other bodies were destroyed or left to rot due to ignorance, superstition, or fear. Some of the bodies were instead ground up to be sold as “mummy” (or mumia), which was used as a medicine from the 12th to the latter part of the 18th century. Egyptian mummies were the original source of this “medicine”, but in many cases it was cheaper and easier to use other sources, such as the bog mummies. Why were these people buried in the bogs? Were they the victims of murder, ritual sacrifice, or did they just fall in?
Sue Stein has had a life-long interest in historical oddities. She is the Managing Editor of FATE Magazine and lives in Minnesota.