To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?

When I was in northern Germany on the Hansa trip, one stop was Schleswig, up near the Danish border. First, we went to see the Viking museum and Haithabu/Hedeby (closed for major remodeling – Boykin’s Law of Museums in action) and the open-air reconstruction, then to the main museum. One of the fascinating things in the museum is the quartet of “bog bodies.”

The “Child of Vindeby” Author photo.

People disappeared into moors (“Moose” in German, “Moss” in some northern English dialects) ever since people discovered the hard way that the solid surface wasn’t solid. Some people died by accident, wandering and getting bogged, drowning and being preserved. Others were murder victims (crime-type violent death) and others were ritual deposits, to use the nice, tidy archaeological term. Those bodies left in peat bogs were, sometimes, preserved, tanned by the tannic acid in the peat waters. Sometimes the entire body and clothing survived, in other cases only parts have remained intact. The bodies are always found by accident, which further reduces the chances of them being “perfect.”

Why were these people left in the bogs? In a few cases, the presence of large rocks, wooden stakes through the heart, and piles of brush held down with more rocks and stakes suggests that the community did NOT want the individual returning to haunt them, or sending plague. Those tend to be relatively rare finds, and more bodies of that sort are found on land. Why sink a vampire (suspected or confirmed) in a bog when you can do it far more safely on solid ground? Some were probably murderers who were staked and left in very unhallowed ground as further punishment, be they Christian or otherwise. A few just got lost and died.

A number that have been found appear to be sacrifices. These are the ones that inspire books, spooky stories, museum displays, and much speculation. The first major work on these, entitled The Bog People, is still the best starting point, even though modern technology and later research have shown some of the early ideas to be incorrect. Peter Glob summarized what was known, what was guessed, and what was suspected, based on the best science at the time. The sacrifices seem to have been unusual in some way – physically different or otherwise slightly outside of society. Several had berries or grains in their stomachs not usually eaten as food, like mistletoe. Some had been strangled, or had been killed by a blow to the head, or by having their throat cut. To whom they were sacrificed is unknown, especially for the ones that are from 1400-1200 BC/BCE or so. The Iron Age sacrifices are also uncertain, although the Celtic gods are probable possibilities, perhaps even the Norse deities, although there’s a LOT of doubt there.

I’d read about the bog bodies growing up, and this was my first chance to ever see one. Or five, in this case. One was not on display when I visited, having been removed for further study. The others are in a separate, dimly-lit section of the museum dedicated to death and beliefs about the afterlife. Since Europeans generally don’t have the taboos about displaying the ancient dead that other cultures have, there were no reasons not to show the bodies, as long as it didn’t lead to preservation problems (unlike Ötzie, who must remain frozen or decomposition will resume.) The larger area talks about beliefs concerning death, what cultures do with bodies, and why these were preserved. Then you come to the actual bodies themselves.

It’s fascinating to see. The lighting is dim for preservation reasons, as well as continuing the sense of mystery and “otherworldliness” we often associate with death. The bodies are in reconstructions of where they are found, if possible. The one above was first thought to be a girl. Later study and better imaging equipment revealed that he is a boy who probably died of disease or other natural causes, possibly related to multiple episodes of malnutrition. Interestingly, he seems to be the only one of the four who was not a sacrifice or “dangerous burial” of some kind.

Old bodies – be they skeletons or bog bodies – don’t bother me the way they disturb some. My culture doesn’t practice ancestor veneration, nor do we believe that a surviving physical body is necessary for an afterlife. I am fascinated by what skeletons and bodies can tell us about everyday life (hard, mostly) and beliefs.

5 thoughts on “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?

  1. You don’t want to get bogged down with that cultural baggage, when it’s a fen time for a slough walk?

  2. Thinking of the “Stake in the heart”, I remember reading about “driving a stake” into the grave of somebody really disliked.

    IE “Now you’re dead so Stay Dead!”. 😀

    • Yes. There was often a sense that the individual, if he had been that bad in life, would probably come back. People who used political or job positions for personal gain (like surveyors) were suspect.

  3. The only “bog body” I’m at all familiar with is Lindow Man, who is thought to have been a sacrifice to the gods – and I only know anything about him because he played a role in one of Katherine Kurtz’s “Adept” novels. Some time later I stumbled across a used copy of the book mentioned therein, “The Life and Death of a Druid Prince.” I was honestly surprised to find it was a real discovery; I thought Kurtz made it up for the novel.

    • Kurtz used a lot of real history and archaeology in her books, both the Adept series and the Dyrini books. It’s fun teasing what’s “author invention” apart from “seriously cool history.”

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