Weird Stuff Found in Bogs

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For my money, whether you call 'em bogs, tarns, mires or moors, bogs are one of the strangest ecosystems on earth. Long before Emily Bronte and Arthur Conan Doyle exploited the bog as a setting for the atmospheric goings-on of their Gothic horror stories, bogs were creeping people out with bursts of ghostly-looking green fire (spontaneous combustion of outgassed methane), releasing millennia-old corpses that looked like they died last week, trapping people in its quicksand-like muck and generally stinking up the place. Let's take a look at some of the weirder things you might find in a bog.

Dead people

The acidic, anaerobic environment under the water of northern European bogs is one in which even bacteria cannot thrive, and thus don't get a chance to decompose whatever bio-matter might fall in. Over the last 5,000 years ago this has included people unfortunate enough to drown in bogs accidentally (they're usually found clutching weeds and sticks in their hands, evidence of futile attempts to cling to the not-solid surface), iron-age people brutally killed and tossed in (heads knocked in, choked with leather straps, disemboweled; the works) and medieval folk who ended up in bogs because for whatever reason church rules wouldn't allow them to be buried on consecrated ground. The endlessly fascinating thing about these "bog people" is that, aside from the intense brown tan their skins have acquired from the tannic water and the fact that the acid in the water dissolves their bones, they look look more or less the way they did when they died. The Tollund Man, for instance, found in a Danish bog near the town of Tollund, wears a famously serene expression on his murdered face (see above). Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote about him in his poem "The Tollund Man":

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

Alive people

People venture into bogs for all sorts of reasons: to cut and dry the peat into bricks which can be burned for fuel (and which famously gives Scotch whisky much of its smoky flavor), to catalog the flora and butterflies which thrive in them during spring and summer months, and most recently, to snorkel. That's right -- the newest extreme sport in Wales is called bog snorkeling, which consists of competitors completing two consecutive lengths of a 60-yard water filled trench cut through a peat bog, in the shortest time possible. The annual Bog Snorkeling Championships have been held in the dense Waen Rhydd peat bog, near Llanwrtyd Wells in mid Wales, since 1985. Contestants are encouraged to wear funny costumes, as you'll see if you watch this video:

"Butter"

bogbutter.jpgWhat is "bog butter?" For a long time, scientists weren't completely sure, and many thought it was literally that -- butter. People have long been finding mysterious, ancient wooden kegs and buckets in bogs filled with a semi-preserved, waxy substance that looked a bit like butter, though few were brave enough to taste it and find out. The prevailing wisdom is that the preservative qualities of bogs may have acted as primitive refrigerators for the ancient people of Ireland and the UK, where most examples of bog butter have been found. But recent tests suggest that while some of these "butters" were in fact dairy, some were meat-based. The practice of preserving meat and dairy in bogs dates back to at least the 2nd century AD.

Really old books

In this case, a Psalter, or Book of Psalms, was discovered by a man operating a backhoe in an Irish peat bog in 2006. The book, its writing still legible, had been buried more more than a thousand years, and a leather carrying pouch for the book was found nearby. Other satchels as well as wooden vessels have been found in the same bog over the years.
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January 27, 2009 - 6:34am
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