Book Review: “The Bog People – Iron-Age Man Preserved” by P.V. Glob

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Unusual material and far from a new release, I just finished reading this title as part of the research for my upcoming novel, TimePeace. The book was originally published in 1969, and is not even available in digital format–I had to borrow it via inter-library loan. Outdated material, you say? Well, not when you consider the subject of this title–corpses found in peat bogs. Some date well over 2000 years old.

The discoveries of these bodies is earliest recorded in 1640, when workers uncovered an extremely well-preserved corpse while cutting peat, which was used for fuel. But these bog bodies have been turning up ever since in peat bogs in most of eastern and northern Europe. When first uncovered, it is assumed the body must be a recent murder victim. Thanks to modern science, however (even back in the mid 1900s), it has been determined that the corpses had been interred in their marshy graves as far back as before the birth of Christ.

It seems the conditions under a peat bog are just right for preservation: no air, no light, and high acid content. The skin of these victims is blackened, taking on the appearance of leather that has been tanned. Remarkably, internal organs, including the brain in some cases, are amazingly well-preserved–even to the point where scientists are able to determine the contents of the intestinal tract to identify what the victims ate for their last meal.

I use the term victims quite deliberately, as a large majority of these bodies show evidence of having suffered violent deaths. Strangulation or hanging, sometimes followed by throat slashing, is common. Whether some of the other broken bones were inflicted before death, or as a result of being crushed under tons of wet peat over the millennia cannot always be determined. It is also not clear whether these poor unfortunate souls met their demise as the result of a murder, a capital punishment for crimes committed, or as human sacrifices to the many gods worshiped during this, the Iron Age.

The most striking example, which the author describes as wearing “an air of gentle tranquility,” is the Tollund Man, discovered in central Jutland in 1950. The facial features are so well preserved that a short stubble still covers his chin and upper lip. The serenity of the man’s pose is shattered, however, when one realizes that he still wears around his neck the rope consisting of two leather thongs. The Tollund Man was either hung or strangled before interment in his watery grave–2000 years ago.

P.V. Glob does an outstanding and painstaking job of describing each bog body finding and the subsequent research conducted by the National Museum up until the book’s publication. The author also explores the culture of Iron Age Man, and extends hypotheses as to why and how these souls met their ends. Since I had never heard of bog bodies, I found this book to be fascinating and highly educational, despite the textbook style of prose. The title is also liberally embellished with black and white photos, some of which I must warn are disturbingly graphic in nature.

If you are interested, you can find The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved on Amazon here. Or you may, like I did, secure a copy for free from your local library.

Also disturbing is evidence that some of the bodies were literally “pinned down” beneath the bog by forked branches around the limbs. Was this done to prevent the body from rising to the surface? Or was the victim submerged alive?

In earlier times, the belief was that as long as the body remained buried, its spirit could not escape. “Fear of ghosts,” as the author states, “has persisted into even more recent times…” Was it just irony that when the Tollund Man was being exhumed that one of the workers succumbed to a heart attack and died on the spot? Or was his life the tariff for the afterlife losing one of their own?

Bog bodies and bog wood will play a significant role in the haunting portion of my upcoming title, TimePeace. Stay tuned.

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