Bog Bodies

Bog Bodies

Bog bodies—mummified corpses still intact 2,000 years after their death—offer questions and clues about life and death in Iron Age Europe.

Grades

9 - 12+

Subjects

Chemistry, Earth Science, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

Image

Tollund Man

Black and white photo Face of a dead man.

Photograph courtesy Sven Rosborn, courtesy Wikimedia. I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

The bog bodies examined in this video are victims. Violently killed thousands of years ago, these corpses of men, women, and children have been naturally preserved by the unique chemistry of Northern Europe’s bogs. Today, archaeologists and anthropologists are acting as crime-scene investigators. They’re using their knowledge of chemistry, geology, and human behavior to better understand the circumstances that led to these gruesome deaths. Watch this four-minute video from the National Geographic Channel, shot on location in a Danish bog, then discuss the questions in the Questions tab. Instructional Ideas Consult National Geography Standard 15: How physical systems affect human systems What physical characteristics of Northern European bogs helped preserve the “bog bodies”?

  • Sphagnum moss interacts with peat and water to create an “antiseptic” bog environment that one expert calls “the secret behind the bog bodies.”

  • How bog bodies are different from other mummies is explored more fully in Question 1.

Consult National Geography Standard 13: How the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of Earth's surfaceMost bog bodies recovered in Ireland have been discovered on the borders of ancient Irish kingdoms. Do students think this is a coincidence?

  • Many anthropologists think it is a coincidence. However, at least one historian thinks the locations may hint at royal sacrifice. A theory concerning the placement of Irish bog bodies is more fully explored in Question 1.

Consult National Geography Standard 12: The processes, patterns, and functions of human settlementWhat factors do students think contributed to the deaths of the bodies in the bogs?

  • According to a National Geographic magazine article, victims may have been killed to appease the “fertility goddesses that Celtic and Germanic peoples believed held the power of life and death. It could have happened one winter after a bad harvest, the researchers say. People were hungry, reduced to eating chaff and weeds. They believed that one of their number had to die so the rest could survive.”

  • The rituals archaeologists think are associated with the bog bodies are more fully explored in Question 2.

Fast Fact

  • Most bog bodies are found in Northern Europe. However, peat ponds in Florida have also preserved the skeletons of ancient Native Americans.

Fast Fact

  • The oldest bog body yet discovered is that of Koelbjerg Woman. This 25-year-old Danish woman died around 8000 BCE.

Fast Fact

  • In 1976, Danish police successfully took fingerprints of Tollund Man, probably the world’s most famous bog body and the one shown in the video. At more than 2300 years old, these are the oldest fingerprints on record!

Fast Fact

  • Many bog bodies are so well preserved scientists can tell what they ate for their last meal. Most had cereals (such as wheat or rye) or bread, and a few had meat.

Fast Fact

  • The hair on most bog bodies is red. They weren’t all redheads, however—the color is a result of hair’s chemical reaction with the acidic water in the bog. Scientists don’t know the actual color of the mummies’ hair.

Fast Fact

  • Not all bog bodies are ancient. The pristine bodies of Russian soldiers killed during World War II were discovered in Polish bogs in the 1990s.
Media Credits

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Writer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Editor
Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Society
Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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