Dr Giles began her talk by introducing us to ‘Worsley Man’, a severed head found in Astley Bog (North Manchester) in 1958. In common with most bog bodies, it was at first thought to be a recent murder: only later was his true antiquity realised. She then described the discovery in 1984 of human remains in Lindow Moss (North Cheshire), the most famous of which is ‘Pete Marsh’, who was claimed by the British Museum rather than remaining in Manchester. Melanie then described the discovery of Tollund Man in 1950 in Jutland, Denmark.
Mosses and bogs are thought of as remote and mysterious places, the interface between our world and the underworld of gods and spiritual powers. Nearly all European bog bodies date from the Iron Age, between c.100 BC and c.400 AD – roughly the Roman period – although some are earlier. Melanie explained that evidence from classical writers , including Tacitus, suggests that the victims were either society’s outcasts, or deliberate sacrifices: their deaths were not accidental. Current work shows the victims came from the upper echelons of Iron Age society: none show evidence of hard labour, and finger nails are usually well manicured (see photo).
The bodies, or more specifically the skin, hair, internal organs, and even textiles, but not bones, are preserved by the tannins and other chemicals in sphagnum moss. Examination of the bodies using scans and tomography shows that death often involved strangulation following blows to the skull, or decapitation. The cause of death of bog women is often unclear, but they were sometimes pinned down by stakes in their watery grave, suggesting they may have been considered witches – whereas bog men more often seem to have been sacrificial victims. Worsley Man, for example, suffered a killer blow to the top of his skull, followed by decapitation, while the remains of rope or hide garrottes are often preserved around the necks of victims. Melanie said the reasons for death seem varied, but in the case of the Irish bog bodies, they were strong, healthy men in their prime, leading to the suggestion that these might be ‘failed kings’, men who had failed to bring prosperity to their tribe, and who were sacrificed to the gods in the hope of better times to come under their successor.
Melanie concluded the talk by discussing the display of these bodies in museums. Britain has tended to fail in this, compared with Ireland and Denmark. Museums need to display the bodies sensitively, and in context, showing the lifestyle of these Iron Age people, with the clothes and jewellery which often survive – and how bogs were used for other votive offerings, such as the vats of butter in Ireland, and the famous Gundestrup cauldron in Denmark.
Melanie is a very enthusiastic lecturer, who certainly communicated her keenness for the subject to her audience. A real ‘tour de force’
Text by Mavis Shannon
Photo of the hand of Old Croghan Man in the Irish National Archaeology Museum, Dublin, by Bill Shannon