Bogs are wet, muddy, and frequently a bit stinky—they’re probably not your ideal vacation spot. It’s easy to confuse a bog with other types of wetlands, such as swamps or marshes, but due to a combination of low oxygen levels and natural chemicals released by sphagnum moss, bogs have an almost magical power to preserve organic material put into their waters. This ability is a tremendous help to archaeologists, who are able to study ancient artifacts, plant and animal remains, and even human bodies as though they were deposited yesterday. Here are 11 of the most amazing things archaeologists have recovered from bogs.
1. Bog Butter
Butter is one of the objects archaeologists most frequently find in bogs. People in northern Europe knew bogs had amazing preservative powers, and may occasionally have used the peaty landscapes like prehistoric refrigerators. Although some of this extremely old butter was most likely meant to be an offering to the gods, other lumps may have been put there merely to keep them fresh. Celebrity chef Kevin Thorton has even suggested butter may have been put in bogs to soak up the flavor, like an intense version of terroir. After taking a taste of the 4000-year-old bog butter (yes, bog preservation really is good enough that it was still edible), Thorton said, “There’s fermentation but it’s not fermentation because it’s gone way beyond that. Then you get this taste coming down or right up through your nose.” Apparently that was a compliment, because Thorton went on to make his own bog butter.
2. Frankenstein Bodies
Archaeologists know that prehistoric people knew about bogs’ preserving properties not just because of the butter, but also because of a pair of extremely cool—and extremely weird—skeletons known as the Cladh Hallan bodies. Found beneath the floor of a house in a small village in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, these two bodies were buried sometime around the year 1000 BCE. It wasn’t unusual for ancient people to bury their ancestors beneath their homes. What was odd, however, was the fact that the bodies were hundreds of years older than the house itself. The island’s early inhabitants had mummified the corpses by stashing them in a bog for several months before burying them in their new location.
It gets even weirder. On closer examination, archaeologists discovered that each skeleton was a mishmash of bones from three different individuals, making a total of six bodies. The matching was done so well, it only turned up during a DNA test.
3. Abstract Art
In addition to using bogs to preserve things, people saw them as special places, ones where the line between the real world and the supernatural world blurred, just as bogs themselves blur the line between water and land. (The name wetlands captures this same blurring in modern English.)
Two figurines from Wittemoor Bog in Germany make the holy nature of bogs clear. These abstract statues look postmodern in their lines, but actually date to 135 BCE. Perhaps representing a male and female, they once stood along a path that ran through the bog, marking its most dangerous point. They were eventually taken down and laid carefully under the peat, their former location marked with evidence of fire and other offerings.
4. Bog Zombies
Bogs were also a place to put things you didn’t want to see again. Dätgen Man, a 30-year-old man who died around the year 150 CE, may be an example of this. He was stabbed and decapitated before being buried in a bog in Germany. But the people who buried him weren’t satisfied by his death alone; his body was also pinned to the floor of the bog with wooden stakes. Archaeologists speculate that Dätgen Man’s killers feared they were dealing with a wiederganger, a zombie-like creature from German folklore. The name means “one who walks again,” and what better way to stop a corpse from coming after your community than permanently trapping it in a place where nothing can decay?
5. Royal Wagons
Bogs were also places to sacrifice precious objects. The Dejbjerg carriages from a bog in Denmark are a pair of magnificent wagons made out of iron and wood with elaborate bronze decorations. Detailed human faces and intricate geometric patterns cover the central part. They most likely belonged to a local leader or rich merchant, yet they were dismantled and broken into more than 1000 pieces before being placed in the bog. It would have been a major abandonment of wealth and prestige by their owner—hopefully he or she was rewarded by the gods.
6. Sacrificial Horoscopes
Another thing to sacrifice was, of course, people. The Weerdinge Couple are two men who were buried arm-in-arm in a bog in the Netherlands around 40 CE. While one showed no obvious signs of violence, the other died from stab wounds to the chest and had his intestines pulled out and piled onto his torso; this desecration could have been part of a ritual meant to forecast the future.
Multiple Roman writers accused their Celtic and Gaulish enemies (their names for the peoples of northern Europe) of using the entrails of sacrificial victims to make predictions. But did northern Europeans of the Iron Age really practice human sacrifice? While the Romans are known for making up propaganda intended to show their enemies in the worst possible light, the archaeological evidence seems to agree with the Romans’ accounts.
7. Silver Cauldrons
One of the most spectacular bog discoveries also suggests human sacrifice may have been likely. The Gundestrup Cauldron was a huge bowl made out of 97 percent pure silver and decorated on all sides. Around the year 100 BCE, it was broken into pieces and deposited onto a tiny island in the middle of a bog in Denmark. It’s now one of the most famous pieces of Celtic art in existence.
One of the cauldron’s panels shows a line of warriors being held upside down over a vessel. It seems to match the account of the Roman writer Strabo, who described the aftermath of battle among the ancient Danes: “Now sword in hand these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up.” Further evidence that maybe all the talk of human sacrifice wasn’t propaganda after all.
8. Fingerprints From the Past
Grauballe Man is another example of a likely human sacrifice. He died when he was only about 30 years old, killed by a single massive slice across the throat. His body is incredibly well-preserved; it’s so detailed, archaeologists were able to take his fingerprints. Even his stomach contents were recoverable, revealing that his last meal was an unappetizing gruel of herbs and grains. Grauballe Man’s life, death, and rediscovery are the subject of a poem written by Seamus Heaney.
9. A Road to Nowhere
The biggest discovery ever to come out of a bog, by far, is the Corlea Trackway. This kilometer-long wooden road, built in Ireland in 147 BCE, was a massive construction project, requiring at least 1000 wagon-loads of oak planks and birch rails. Yet it would have been usable for only a few years, at most a decade, before sinking beneath the surface of the bog. It’s probable that the people who built it were aware of this time limit; the trackway was likely more about making a sacrifice of the labor and supplies involved and less about creating a usable road.
Another reason why archaeologists don’t think the road was meant to be functional: It doesn’t go anywhere. There are no major settlements in or near the bog, so there’s no clear reason for why a road needed to be built there at all. Unless, of course, it was always meant to quickly disappear.
10. Brutal Murder
The most interesting—or most horrifying, depending on your perspective—body to come out of a bog is known as Lindow Man. He died in England around 60 CE when he was in his mid-twenties, likely killed as part of a ritual sacrifice. In Lindow Man’s case, he was stabbed in the skull, strangled, and had his throat cut. One archaeologist described his death in terms that sound more like a horror movie than a scientific report: “The combination of tightening the noose and cutting the throat would have had the effect of causing a fountain of blood to spurt from the throat wound at high pressure.”
Multiple theories exist to account for this overabundance of violence. One explanation is that by dying in three different ways simultaneously, Lindow Man surpassed ordinary humans and was able to join the realm of the gods. After all, most of us only have to die once. Maybe doing so multiple times is an achievement instead of a tragedy.
11. Recent Murder
Lindow Man isn’t the only body to come out of the Lindow bog. In fact, among archaeologists he’s better known as Lindow II (out of a total of four). Lindow I, the first to be discovered, was only a skull with some strands of hair attached. It was so well-preserved that when it was first found, police assumed it must be evidence of a recent murder and began to question the local community. One man confessed to murdering his wife, Malika de Fernandez, 26 years earlier and burying her body in the bog. When Lindow I’s carbon-dating results came in, they revealed the skull was 1740 years old, and therefore definitely did not belong to Malika. Nonetheless, the local man was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, because even without a body, he couldn’t revoke the confession he had made.