Book review: the bodies in the bogs give up some of their fascinating secrets – but not all

Preserved for millennia in peat bogs, these Neolithic human remains are slowly yielding to modern scientific inquiry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 10:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 10:32am

Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery 

by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (Thames & Hudson)

A rather grisly, yet fascinating, set of artifacts has appeared and reappeared over the past 200 years, one that brings us as close as we’re likely to get to knowing ancient peoples. Really close. Uncomfortably close, in some cases.

These remains are called collectively the “bog bodies”, and archaeology professor  Miranda Aldhouse-Green selects a handful of well-researched bodies for Bog Bodies Uncovered. These are people we now know a lot about thanks to the intriguing CSI-like technology that has brought their lives into the light of the modern day.

The term “bog bodies” refers to the whole, well-preserved corpses that have been found in the watery peat bogs of northern Europe. Some of them were young adults; some adolescents. Most had a disability. All met horrible deaths between 500BC and AD200 And all look very nearly like they did the day they met their end. No oxygen can penetrate the bog, which halts decomposition. That, plus a chemical found in the moss peculiar to these bogs, keeps skin, hair, teeth and clothing intact.

The bodies are named after the places where they were found, but science has helped us know these people intimately. Intact guts mean we know what they ate – in one case, mistletoe, in another, a probably-not-tasty griddle cake. We know the colour and styles of their hair, because it is still on their heads.

One of the most famous bog victims, called Tollund Man, still has stubble on his cheeks. His eyes are closed, as if sleeping. He looks  peaceful, until the viewer notes the noose around his neck. Still not known: why these people were murdered. Aldhouse-Green  has theories, but   they’re not as fascinating as the glimpse into Neolithic times that science has given us.

Bonus for fans of fictional mysteries: crime novelist  Val McDermid wrote the book’s foreword, explaining her interest in the bog bodies. “All we can do is interrogate what is left,” she says of scientific inquiry.

Tribune News Service