How did ancient people alter the basic human form? Without written records we rely on representations of humans in early art and on the remains of fleshed bodies, rather than dry bones, for information. In NW Europe the earliest examples of soft tissue preservation include a single Bronze Age ‘ice mummy’ (Utzi) who died 5000 years ago, with more extensive information available from over one thousand remains of Iron Age people preserved in peat bogs.
These bog bodies or bog mummies have been recovered from the peatlands of Ireland, Britain, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, normally during the exploitation of peat for fuel or compost. The majority of individuals lived about 2000 years ago (Early Iron Age) but many have been mistaken for murder victims – their hair, nails and skin so well preserved that they appear to belong to the recent dead.
Men, women and children have all be found, some of whom appear to have been deliberately killed and placed in the bogs rather than representing accidental deaths. If sacrificed then their appearance may not represent the norm, but bog bodies can still provide information on Iron Age trends in hair styles, nail care and skin decoration. Individual in the following text are identified by their location.
All types of hair have been found preserved on bog bodies: head, facial, body and pubic. Surviving hair is often reddish as a result of changes within the bog, but analysis has revealed a range of hair colours and styles. Male hair was worn both long and short. Long hair was tied up – with examples of the Suebian knot, a form of twisted ‘sweep-over’ man bun (described by the Roman author Tacitus) worn by individuals at Datgen (age 30) and Osterby (age 55-60) or in an updo in Clonycaven (age 22). The later had a band of short hair surrounding his lice-infested quiff, which was secured by pine resin scented hair ‘gel’, from trees in South West Europe and a hair tie. There is one example of loose long hair, found in a 16-year-old boy, Windeby I, his shoulder length hair had been half shaved off. Short hair provides evidence of cutting tools, including the use of cross blades in the form of shears (scissors as we know them were invented later), with a range of simple single hair styles present.
Females of all ages generally have long hair, and some is extremely long (over 1.0m in the example at Elling, age 25). Many women have, often highly elaborate, plaits still in place but for a few the hair appears to be loose, cut, or shaved (e.g. Yde, age 14), and found alongside the body. There are also a series of severed loose plaits recovered from bogs in Denmark, interpreted as hair removal during a rite of passage (such as marriage), and some appear to be conglomerations of the hair of more than one individual.
Little is known about hair-care; evidence for shampoos is sparse and combs would have been used both to order and clean the hair. Preserved combs of this period are generally wide-toothed and made of bone or wood; it is not until the middle ages close-toothed lice combs were produced.
Many male bog bodies are clean shaven, employing stone or metal tools, whilst others have trimmed beards and sideburns. Few longer beards have been preserved and moustaches are scarce. Finely wrought and decorated metal razors are relatively common in Scandinavia and Ireland at this time, but in Britain they are relatively rare and it is unclear if men shaved regularly or for special occasions only. Hair removal may have had a ritual significance, for example underneath an upturned pot at a burial tomb in Wiltshire was a razor. This was found with a small pile of eyebrow hair, from many individuals, and has been linked to mourning. There is very little evidence for the management of body or pubic hair, although lice would have been an issue.
Like hair, nails are also preserved. There are a number of bog bodies with manicured nails typical of those not employed in regular hard labour.
The skin of the bog mummies is marked by the wear and tear of human life, with callouses clearly visible, but there is no evidence for skin care, marking or covering except in one case. During analysis a male British bog body, Lindow II, was found to be covered in a clay based copper compound which may have given his skin a blue/green hue. Bog mummies provide no evidence for the other historically described body art such as woad painting (as a battle body paint with styptic qualities) or for pricked, cut or branded images of animals and symbols. The earliest tattoos in Europe are preserved on Utzi, and these probably medicinal tattoos are a series of dots and lines placed on what today are described as acupressure points.
Although numerous bog bodies have been found, there are only about 40 examples left in the world. The preservation and recovery as yet undiscovered bog bodies is also under threat. Peat is now mechanically harvested and bogs are drying out due to human management and climate change. The insight these individuals can provide to life in North West Europe is unprecedented and offers a rare closeup and personal glimpse into our common past.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2001. ‘Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe’, in M. Alderhouse-Green (ed.), Suffocation: Drowing, Strangling and Burial Alive. Stroud: Tempus, pp. 111-135.
Miranda Alderhouse-Green. 2015. Bog Bodies Uncovered. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson. 2001 ‘Bog Bodies’, in A. Chamberlain and M. Pearson (eds.), Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. London: British Museum, pp. 44-82.
E.P. Kelly. 2006. ‘Secrets of the Bog Bodies: The Enigma of the Iron Age Explained’, Archaeology Ireland 20(1), pp. 26-30.
Karin Saunders. 2009. Bodies in the Bod and the Archaeological Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jacqui is a bioarchaeologist who takes archaeology to new audiences at music and arts festivals. She invented Guerilla Archaeology, a collective of archaeologists, artists, scientists and students who create and deliver events to thousands of people each year. Over the past five years GA have tackled evolution and domestication, the archaeologies of the sun, moon and stars, shamans, death, deer and most recently music – getting people involved in exploring the complexity and commonality of past and present human lives.
Jacqui has published widely on animal/human relationships and insular archaeologies of Britain and beyond.