Bodies in the bog – Karin Sanders


I’ve been fascinated by bog bodies for as long as I can remember. I love history & archaeology (reading about it that is, I’m much too lazy to wield a trowel); I’m a big fan of Time Team & I loved Julian Richards’ TV series of some years ago called Meet The Ancestors. The investigations often ended with a facial reconstruction of the person who was the subject of the excavation. Looking into the face of someone who lived & died thousands of years ago can be a moving experience.

The classic book about bog bodies is The Bog People by P V Glob, written in the 60s by a Danish archaeologist who wanted to explain the phenomenon for the layperson. He succeeded brilliantly. His book is still in print (my edition is by the wonderful New York Review Books) & Glob brings the Iron Age alive with his descriptions of the bodies & what can be learned from them of the lives of people in Europe thousands of years ago. Bog bodies are the preserved corpses of people who have been deposited in peat bogs. The conditions of the peat bog act to preserve the body. The preservation is so great that when the bodies are unearthed, the finders often call the police, thinking they’ve found a recent murder victim. Often the hair and fingernails are intact. The photo of the hands & feet of Graubelle Man on the cover of Sanders’ book is so beautiful. The lines of his skin are visible, his hands are folded as if holding something. The bog may crush the body or the peat cutters may chop off a limb as they uncover it, but the bodies are often astonishingly complete & look as though they’re asleep. Most of the bog bodies have been found in England, Ireland & Scandinavia as this is where peat bogs are formed. There are so many questions about these people & just as many theories about them.

They’re usually named after the places where they’re found – Tollund Man, Graubelle Man, Lindow Man – or they’re given fanciful names such as Pete Moss. The bodies are often naked, sometimes there’s a noose around the neck or the hands are tied behind the back. This has led to theories that these are criminals, executed for some particularly horrible or transgressive crime as they’re denied a decent burial & just thrown into the bog like rubbish. There’s also a theory that these are sacrificial victims, maybe of high status, ritually killed to appease the gods. There has been much analysis of the last meal eaten by these people & whether they may have suffered a ritual triple death by poison, strangulation & stabbing. We know so little about the beliefs & lives of Iron Age people that these bog bodies offer a unique opportunity to find out more.

Karin Sanders’s new book, Bodies in the Bog, takes a slightly different look at bog bodies. She looks at the way they have influenced art & literature & also examines the contentious issue of the display of bog bodies in museums. The display of human remains is a difficult issue. Many indigenous people from around the world have been successful in having the remains of their ancestors repatriated from museums so they can be given a dignified burial. What is to be done about the bog people? They have no immediate descendants or tribal people to champion them but many people feel uncomfortable about looking at Egyptian mummies in their sarcophagi let alone bog bodies that still look like a sleeping human being. The alternative theory is that the bodies are an artefact to be learned from. Some museums display a replica of the body while others try to reproduce the bog with the body in situ.

Sanders has taken examples from the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the stories of Margaret Atwood & Anne Michaels & the art of Trudi van der Elsen to examine the ways that bog bodies have captured the imagination of creative artists. She also looks at the way the bodies were portrayed & written about in the past & looks at the different methods of facial reconstruction where the remains have been crushed or distorted by the pressure of the bog over the centuries. I enjoyed the book very much although some of it was very academic. I have to admit feeling out of my depth among some of her theoretical arguments. But, the book has many beautiful illustrations of the bog bodies & the artwork inspired by them. Sanders has taken a very thoughtful look at the phenomenon of the bog bodies.

I think Sanders & Glob should be read together to get a truly rounded view of the historical context as well as the artistic & moral issues that arise from our quest to know these people of the past.

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