A Brief History of Bog Bodies (and Butter)

Discovered in a bog in Denmark in 1950, Tollund Man had been hanged. His last meal was a porridge of flax and barley. Image credit: RV1864 via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Here in America, we largely think of bogs as those things in New England that produce the perpetual Thanksgiving dinner staple, cranberries. But bogs are a much more important geographical feature in Northern and Eastern Europe, and have been for centuries. They are especially useful for archaeologists, though, because of their excellent preservation of organic materials, including massive wads of ancient butter and chunks of leathery human bodies.

Most of the discoveries of ancient remains in European bogs have been the result of modern peat harvesting. Composed of vegetation like sphagnum moss that has decayed over time, peat can be burned and used as a fuel when dried. But peat in a wetland environment can also create anoxic—or oxygen-free—conditions that slow the decomposition of organic remains in the bog. The combination of cool climate and anoxic water in these northern bogs makes conditions right for long-term preservation.

In the past few years, numerous examples of “bog butter” have come out of the peat in Scotland and Ireland. These usually stinky chunks of yellowish glop can weigh up to 50 kg and are generally found in a wooden container or animal skins for protection. Dating back as far as 5000 years ago, some of the butter is made out of dairy fat, and some of it is made from lard or tallow, according to recent isotope testing done on some samplesThe most recent “bog butter” find came from County Meath, Ireland, in June. Butter was ubiquitous in many past eras, acting not only as a food but as a salve for wounds and a substitute for cash in paying taxes, so it’s also possible it was buried to protect a family’s wealth from thieves.

A man demonstrates how to cut peat with a slane, or turf spade, in Ireland's Blackwater Bog. Image credit: Joseph Micshyshyn via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As weird as it must be to find a hunk of rancid butter the size of a small child while going about one’s work, imagine finding hunks of leathery human body parts instead. Those also come out of European peat bogs with considerable regularity but are decidedly less gelatinous.

Bog bodies are, quite simply, humans whose remains have been preserved in a peat bog. Just as the bog’s cool, anoxic environment can preserve butter, it can also preserve people. And while these people are technically natural mummies, their bodies aren’t like traditional desiccated mummies from Egypt or freeze-dried mummies from the high Andes.

The secret is once again in the peat. Many peat bogs have highly acidic water, which actually works to dissolve the skeleton by leaching out the calcium phosphate in the bones. But the skin and organs are preserved thanks to the lack of oxygen. Because of the tannins, a chemical compound in the peat, the skin becomes brown and leather-like, and the result is a human-shaped skin bag that retains astonishing detail—fingerprints, whiskers, wrinkles.

Bog bodies date to as early as 8000 BCE and as recently as World War I, in the case of some Russian and German soldiers who died fighting in a lake district in Poland. While a study in the mid-20th century claimed to have found nearly 2000 bog bodies, researchers today count only about four dozen that are intact and with appropriate archaeological context. And the vast majority of them are from the Iron Age of Europe—around 900 BCE to Roman contact in the 1st century CE. This time period coincided with an increase in weaponry and violence throughout the region.  Interestingly enough, bogs can also contain iron, and many objects were smelted in this period from “bog iron.”

Just as most of the bog bodies date to the same general time period, many share similarities in the people’s deaths and circumstances of burial. Take the three most famous bog bodies: Tollund Man (4th century BCE), Grauballe Man (3rd century BCE), and Lindow Man (1st century CE). All were found mostly or completely naked with evidence of having met violent ends.

The best studied of all the bog bodies, Tollund Man was initially thought to have been a modern murder victim when he was found in 1950 in Denmark. A lack of clothing (save for a felt hat and a belt) was odd—but not as strange as the remains of a noose around his neck. Forensic scientists who examined the body in 2002 found that Tollund Man’s tongue was distended—an indication he had been hanged. The stubble on his face suggests Tollund Man didn’t shave for at least a day prior, and analysis of his gut contents revealed a meal of barley and flax porridge eaten 12 to 24 hours before death.

A couple years later, Grauballe Man was found, also in the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Unlike Tollund Man, Grauballe Man was completely naked. His shock of red hair looks almost like a wig, the result of discoloration from the bog. No noose was found with this body; rather, his neck had been slit open so violently that his trachea and esophagus were severed. Grauballe Man’s remains actually include bones, which are occasionally preserved in bogs. He was likely an older adult, based on the degeneration of his spine, and his teeth suggested his childhood involved periods of poor health.

Grauballe Man's hand. His remains are on display at the Moesgaard Museum, Denmark. Image credit:  Malene Thyssen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Over in England, Lindow Man was discovered in 1984, becoming the most complete bog body discovered in that country. He wore a fox-fur armband, but otherwise was completely naked. And his death was perhaps the most violent of all known bog bodies. First, he was clocked on the head with a blunt object; he may have fallen unconscious but didn’t die from that, as there is evidence of slight healing in the wound. He was stabbed in the chest but also strangled with a sinew cord that was recovered with his body. Other wounds include a broken rib and broken neck vertebrae, but with archaeo-forensic cases, it is not always possible to tell which injuries happened when. Lindow Man appears to have eaten charred bread as his last meal.

There is clearly a theme to most of these Iron Age bog bodies—extremely violent ends. Other examples of murdered men thrown into ancient bogs include: Dätgen Man from Germany, who had been beaten, stabbed, and decapitated; the Nieuw-Weerdingen men from the Netherlands, one of whom had been disemboweled; and Old Croghan Man from Ireland, whose nipples had been cut out, possibly as a way of torturing him before death. 

There's little left of Old Croghan Man, but there's enough to indicate that the Iron Age man may have been tortured. Image credit: Mark Healey via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

They weren’t all men, either. One of the Borremose Women from Denmark was discovered with a belt around her neck and an infant in her arms. “Moora” from Germany is mostly skeletonized, but she was malnourished and had suffered two skull fractures before her death. And Kayhausen Boy from Germany was around 7 to 10 years old when he was stabbed repeatedly in the throat and arm. Especially poignant was his infected hip socket, which would have disabled him and caused him pain at the end of his short life.

The real question that’s been haunting archaeologists since the bog bodies started to be uncovered in the 19th century is: Why were all these people murdered? There aren’t yet any definitive answers, in particular because bog bodies span nearly 10 millennia and much of a continent. Any explanation for violence and burial in the past has to be based in large part on culture, and culture changes dramatically over time and place.

For the most part, archaeologists have advanced two general theories for the murder of the bog bodies. The much earlier Bronze Age bodies are thought to have been potentially human sacrifices, particularly because many of the people were adolescents and young adults when they were killed.

The second theory concerns the Iron Age bodies, which may have been those of criminals or other people considered socially deviant. Artifact evidence suggests that bogs may have held ritual significance since they are an interesting geographical feature: neither solid land nor open water. During a tumultuous time just prior to prolonged contact with the Romans, where northern European groups began to see the start of hierarchy and social class differentiation, perhaps ignominious burial in a bog was Iron Age people’s way of separating “us” from “them.”

Unearthed in the Netherlands in 1897, Yde Girl had a noose wrapped around her neck and a stab wound near her collarbone. She was about 16, had scoliosis, and stood 4' 6". Image credit: Bullenwachter via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 

While most bog bodies were found in the 19th and early 20th centuries owing to the role of the peat industry in fuel production, a renewed interest in peat in Ireland has meant half a dozen bog bodies have been discovered there since 2000. These, plus new studies of well-conserved bog bodies found decades ago, are giving us new insight into life in northern Europe in the first millennium BCE.

Contemporary techniques to analyze the bodies include 3D CT scanning, which doesn’t destroy the skin the way that traditional autopsy would. The diet of the bog people is being reconstructed through carefully extracted gut contents and chemical analysis, revealing varied diets with a lot of grain and local seeds. And thanks to preservation by the peat, the bodies are also revealing their parasites. Every single bog body that has been directly examined with modern techniques had a parasitic infection, usually roundworm or whipworm. Life before antibiotics was rough indeed.

One thing that archaeologists are still lacking, however, is high-quality DNA from the remains. Although Grauballe Man was tested for ancient DNA, his body did not produce any, probably because the acidic conditions in the bog damaged the proteins on which ancient DNA testing is typically done. As this technology is progressing rapidly, it is only a matter of time until the bog bodies’ DNA gives us deeper insights into their lives.

But all of this information is still coming from individual remains. Unlike with bioarchaeological research, which uses hundreds of skeletons from one cemetery to understand whole populations of past people, bog bodies are still found in isolated contexts, purely by chance. The recent finds in Ireland, however, speak to the potential for more bog bodies to surface in the second half of this decade. When they do, archaeologists and forensic specialists armed with the latest techniques will be on hand to coax new clues from the depths of the bog. 

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.


The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.


artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.


If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."


On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.


Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.


Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."


Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."


andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.


There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 


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