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Above:Red Franz..











“We try very hard not to put our value system on what we find; we try not to be judges. I think some of the people who dispute the ritual sacrifice angle just don’t want to think our ancestors could have done something like that.” –Sandra Olsen, Curator of Anthropology


Examples of the less-grisly items found in the bogs: a brass wind instrument dating from the Bronze Age (top) and a Ubbena wheel dating from
c. 2750 BC, i.e. from the Neolithic period.






The Mysteries of the Bog People Unearthed

Thanks to scientific sleuthing, the “bog people”—the mummified remains of our European forefathers—tell us strange tales of life thousands of years ago.

A partially decomposed head is found near the Manchester, England, home of a man whose wife disappeared 20 years earlier. When initial testing reveals the head belonged to a 30- to 50-year old European woman, police confront the man who quickly confesses.

Sounds like an episode of the ubiquitous CSI: Crime Scene Investigation TV shows, right? But here’s the twist that even CSI’s forensic experts could never have dreamed up: Subsequent carbon 14 dating showed the head to be 1,700 years old. Even so, Peter Reyn-Bardt—who police had for some time suspected of killing his wife—went to prison based on his confession.

That infamous head, discovered in 1983, is among the remains of hundreds of “bog people” unearthed from northern Europe’s peat bogs during the past 200 years. Seven of these bodies and a host of artifacts associated with them—from tools to jewelry—are showcased in The Mysterious Bog People, debuting at Carnegie Museum of Natural History on July 9. The exhibit provides a rare glimpse into the life, customs, and religious beliefs of Europeans living during the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages.

Made up of wet spongy ground—much like a marsh—that fills with decaying mosses, a bog has chemical properties that preserve hair and flesh (fingerprints were still visible on several bodies). Thanks to those properties, the mummified remains found in the bogs of Europe have allowed archaeologists to extrapolate about the culture and belief system of the northern Europeans who lived at the dawn of Christianity.

“ We can find out how they died, their age, sex, and even the season of death based on pollen and insect pupae found with the body,” says Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “We can see whether or not they had tattoos, what their last meals were, what kind of parasites they had. We can even determine blood type, height, and sometimes dental condition.”

Unfortunately, many of the bodies tell a grisly story of death by violence: bludgeonings, stabbings, hangings, and probably drownings. Many individuals suffered a number of these fates—what police today would call “overkill.” Through the use of cutting-edge forensic science, the rather creepy conclusion is that many “bog people” had been ritually sacrificed.

Ritual and Superstition Meet Science
The people who inhabited northern Europe between 10,000 BC and 500 AD were a superstitious lot. Living in the high, dry lands between bogs, they believed spirits and gods dwelled in caves, in groves of trees, and especially in watery places. In fact, the supernatural was so feared that many bodies consigned to bogs were weighted or pinned down to prevent their
spirits from rising to pursue the living. This is where the bogeyman—the mythical creature that has scared children into good behavior for centuries—was born. The people who placed the bodies in the bogs called the evil spirits that they believed lived in the bogs the “boggymen.”

“ Sacrifice was done to curry favor with the gods—for greater fertility for the crops, greater fertility for the animals, and greater fertility for the women,” says Olsen, the only Old World archaeologist at Carnegie Museums. “On the flip side, sacrifice was also done to appease the gods to prevent them from getting angry and inflicting punishment such as famine or plagues.”

Although not a part of the exhibit, one of the best-studied bog bodies is that of England’s 2,500-year-old “Lindow Man,” the poster boy for ritual sacrifice. Using X-rays, CT-scans, scanning electron microscopy analysis, and electron spin resonance spectroscopy, Lindow Man’s remains revealed that at the age of 25 he had been killed as part of a ritual sacrifice—bludgeoned and garroted before having his throat cut. What’s more, researchers learned that the ends of his beard were cut on both sides, or “stepped,” indicating they had been trimmed with shears or scissors and not a razor shortly before his death—the first archaeological proof that Iron Age northern Europeans possessed these cutting tools.

But the most interesting clues were in his intestines: mistletoe pollen—a sacred Celtic plant—and
a small piece of charred oak cake, called bannock bread. When Romans began invading the British Isle in 55 BC, they reported that Iron Age Celts often performed ritual sacrifices during “Beltain,” a spring festival that occurred when mistletoe would have been in bloom. During these celebrations, pieces of bannock bread—including one charred piece—were doled out, and the soon-to-be lucky stiff who picked the burnt piece became the sacrificial lamb. Olsen says mistletoe—slipped into food or eaten willingly—might have acted as a sedative, creating a tractable state. (Mistletoe has long been administered as an antispasmodic, tonic, or narcotic.)

Olsen, who has worked on weapons found deposited in a northern English bog as well as on archaeological finds of prehistoric sacrifices in Kazakhstan, was working at the British Museum when Lindow Man arrived for analysis. “I didn’t personally work on him, but my friends did,” she says. “They did a fantastic job of analyzing every aspect of him and publishing the results.

“ I remember the excitement when they found his navel…the only Iron Age belly button ever found,” Olsen recalls. “And it’s an innie!”

Non-Judgmental Learning
Roman historian Tacitus reported that northern Europeans often punished deserters, social outcasts, law-breakers, thieves, and prostitutes by hanging them. That may have been the fate of The Mysterious Bog People’s “Yde Girl.” Living in the first century Netherlands, Yde Girl’s short life—she died at age 16—was not a happy one. She suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which affected her walk; her woolen cape was threadbare and oft mended, indicating poverty; and she died violently—stabbed in the clavicle and hung with a woolen cord that still encircled her neck when she was uncovered in 1897.

Yde Girl may have been punished for a crime or sacrificed—or both. “They were very practical people,” says Olsen of the early northern Europeans. “If they wanted to get rid of someone they didn’t like, they may have made a ritual sacrifice of them.”

Judging from the items discovered in the bogs, researchers have discerned that human sacrifices were probably the exception and not the rule. The Mysterious Bog People showcases 400 less-grisly items that were offered up to the bogs’ spirits and gods. Since most of these items are valuable and in good condition, archaeologists think they were prized possessions placed in bogs along travel routes to ensure safe passage through the quicksand-like waters often frequented by thieves and highwaymen. Items in the exhibit include a ceremonial wind instrument called a lur, agricultural tools, weapons, and a beautiful necklace of tin, faience, and amber beads.

The objects found in the bogs tell us much about how these people worked, what materials they received in trade, and how they adorned their bodies. And, yes, how they died. But despite the physical evidence, some researchers will try to explain-away the idea of ritual sacrifice. According to Olsen, they rationalize that “nooses” could have been necklaces that shrank in the bog’s water, and “knife wounds” could have been made post-mortem with peat-cutting machinery.

“ We try very hard not to put our value system on what we find; we try not to be judges,” she says. “I think some of the people who dispute the ritual sacrifice angle just don’t want to think our ancestors could have done something like that.”

The Bogs
Just as mysterious as the bodies found in the bogs are the bogs themselves. Only two other environments preserve human remains as well—arctic cold and dry deserts.

In the 16th century, hundreds of years after Christianity ended the pagan ritual sacrifices, Europeans discovered that peat could be burned for fuel. The first known discovery of a bog body occurred during peat harvesting in the late 1700s, but there were surely earlier discoveries whose significance was overlooked and the remains reburied.

“ Red Franz,” whose name came from the carrot-colored hue the bog water turned his blonde hair, almost suffered that fate. When Franz was unearthed in Germany 105 years ago, his body was so well preserved he was taken for a recent murder victim. When his body wasn’t claimed, he was buried in a local cemetery only to be dug up again five months later when scientists at a local museum realized the error. Franz had indeed been a murder victim—his throat was slashed—but he actually died at age 25 between 200 and 400 AD.

How does a bog preserve human remains so well that a millennium can pass without much effect? While cold freezes and deserts dry, a bog pickles and tans. A bog’s stagnant waters prevent flesh-decaying bacteria from growing and its highly acidic waters preserve skin, hair, nails, and even organs that tannin in the sphagnum moss tans like leather. Surprisingly, different bogs preserve things differently. In some, only hair, skin, and hide or vegetable-based clothing (such as cotton and flax) remain; while bones and teeth are eaten away. “Calcium-rich bones and teeth need a more alkaline environment,” Olsen explains. “Some of the bog bodies have few bones left. They’re just a hollow bag, somewhat like a leather purse.”

Protected for hundreds of years in a watery grave, a bog body can quickly begin to deteriorate once brought to the surface. “Once the body is out of the ground, then we have to worry about how to preserve it again,” says Olsen.

The best method is freeze-drying, which removes moisture from the organic material and prevents excessive shrinkage, but bodies have also been re-tanned in oak bark and then oiled with glycerin, lanolin, and cod liver oil to prevent them from drying out. They can then be displayed—almost like giving them a second life.

Another method of “reviving” these people is through facial reconstruction, a procedure often utilized by modern-day police investigators who’ve found a decomposed John (or Jane) Doe. Using a well-preserved skull, CT-scans, and sophisticated computer software, the face is rebuilt layer by layer using clay or wax for soft tissue and artificial eyes and hair.

The results are stunningly—and a little disturbingly—life-like. The Mysterious Bog People features two such reconstructions—Yde Girl and Red Franz. They almost appear ready to speak.
And if only they could…what stories they would tell.

Through the wonders of facial reconstruction,
the world sees “Yde Girl.”


Carnegie Museum of Natural History's presentation of The Mysterious Bog People was made possible through generous grants from ANSYS, the Inns on Negley, Jendoco Construction Corporation, NOVA Chemicals, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Promotional support is being provided by Citizens Bank, Duquesne University, the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Walnut Capital. Media sponsors for the exhibit are KDKA-TV, Lamar Advertising, and Steel City Media.

The Mysterious Bog People will be at Carnegie Museum of Natural History through January 23, 2006. The exhibit was produced in partnership by four major European and Canadian museums: the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum in Hanover, Germany; the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Canada; Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada; and the Drents Museum in Assen, Netherlands.

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