“Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.”
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney was writing about the Tollund Man, an extraordinarily well-preserved mummified corpse of a 2,400 year old man who was recovered from a Danish peat bog in 1950. Heaney did one day go to see him – in the Silkeborg Museum, actually about an hour west of Aarhus on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula – and you can too.
In fact, if you feel so inclined, you can build a whole European trip out of these Iron Age remains. The Tollund Man is by far the best-preserved, but is one of many similar corpses that have been given up by the peat bog belt that stretches from Ireland, across the middle of England, and into Denmark. The Silkeborg Museum itself houses another, Elling Woman, while Grauballe Man resides in nearby Aarhus. You can find Lindow Man, discovered in a bog in Cheshire in 1984, in the British Museum; and Old Croghan Man, found in County Offaly, at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. All are Iron Age bodies, over 2,000 years old.
But the granddaddy of them all, in terms of age, is Otzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old hunter-gatherer who emerged from a glacier on the border between Austria and Italy in 1991 and today resides at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, in the German-speaking part of Alpine Italy.
Is it a bit macabre to run around looking at all these dead bodies – which, unlike mummified Egyptian corpses, are exposed, their faces clear? Well, you’d be surprised.
Firstly, their condition is just remarkable. Almost all of them, including Utzi and Tollund Man, were so well kept that the people who discovered them reported them to the police as recent murder victims. They do vary in their condition; all that’s really recognisable of Elling Woman is her clothing and her still-plaited hair, for example, while Lindow Man’s features have been distorted to look a little like Edward Munch’s The Scream. But seeing Tollund Man is an experience you will never forget. Were it not for the fact that his skin has been dyed black over the centuries by the peat bog, you could believe he had just gone to sleep. You can clearly see the individual bristles of his beard stubble, the lines around his closed eyes, the contours of his lips, arranged as if in a pleasant dream. He’s almost smiling.
“When you look at him,” says Ole Nielsen, director of the Silkeborg Museum, “you say: he’s like me. It really makes you think you’re coming face to face with pre-history.”
Second, there’s a great deal to be learned from these finds. In most cases, we know what their last meal was: a porridge made from vegetables and seeds for Tollund Man, an unleavened griddle cake baked over an open fire for Lindow Man, and a combination of chamois meat, red deer and herb bread for Otzi.
Otzi’s hair tells us what his diet was for months beforehand. We know that he must have eaten in a mid-altitude conifer forest in the spring; that he had stored einkorn wheat from the previous year; that he ate two hours before he died; that he took long walks over hills; that he smelted copper. We know he was sick three times in six months before he died, that he had an intestinal parasite, and even that he had carbon tattoos – which may have been a form of acupuncture 2,000 years before the Chinese were believed to have invented it.
We know another thing too: they were all murdered. All of them. Otzi, in those primitive times, may have just got into a fight about food or territory, but the peat bog people were all strangled with nooses. Which gives us one more reason to be interested in these bodies: they’re a detective story too.
“We know he was hanged,” says Nielsen of Tollund Man, “but we don’t know why. Did he hang himself? Was he punished for some wrong-doing? Was he a sacrifice for the gods?” The third is the most widely supported theory, as bogs were sacred to Iron Age farmers. But whatever the reason, someone cared about him. “Someone has taken him down afterwards and put him to rest in the bog, in a sleep-like position. You don’t look like that if you have just been hanged: somebody has closed his eyes, his mouth, shown care for him, and put him at rest.”
That said, tantalisingly, there is plenty we also don’t know about these people who so clearly resemble us – they are us, just in a different time and culture – but who can’t tell us their stories. “I’d very much like to take a USB and plug it into his brain to download what he saw,” says Nielsen. “What language did he talk? What did he think? What values did he have, what gods did he believe in, what were the issues of his life and time? Was he happy?” There is still an enormous amount, culturally, that we don’t know about pre-history, as any trip to Stonehenge – with its myriad theories and guesses – will tell you. “We are a culture, and a culture is that you stand on other people’s shoulders,” says Nielsen. “Who were those people way down in the chain upon whose shoulders I stand?”
While Otzi was clearly just frozen in the ice, the peat bog bodies exist because of a curious combination of circumstances. It’s not just that they were buried in a bog; they were all buried in something called a raised bog, and more specifically one containing sphagnum mosses, which aid preservation but also release a sugary substance that acts as a tanning agent and turns skin and muscles into a black or brownish-red leather. Bogs are cold, acidic and lacking in oxygen, which prevents microorganisms that would normally break down the body. It’s likely that all the bodies that survived were buried during the winter, below four degrees Celsius, and must have been covered quickly. Elling Woman and Tollund Man were found 80 metres apart, at a 12 year interval; it’s likely there are others down there in Denmark and Ireland, a couple of metres into the bog, just waiting to be found by farmers using the peat as fuel.
The bodies have a different resonance according to the place they’re housed in. Tollund Man is the very clear centrepiece of the Silkeborg Museum, attracting 25,000 visitors a year; Otzi is, to a large extent, the whole reason for the existence of the South Tyrol Museum, which has tried to recreate exactly what he would have looked like in a sequence of intriguing exhibits. Lindow Man, by contrast, is in a corner of Room 50 on the third floor of the British Museum; among all the other plunder in that extraordinary place, he doesn’t even make the top 10 “Don’t Miss” exhibits on the museum’s free map.
Because of the stark evidence of a brutal past, some people have found an emotional resonance in the bodies – none more so than Heaney himself, the Nobel Prize-winning poet. Writing in a conflict-torn Ireland in the 1970s, he saw in the tribal sacrifices and executions of these old civilisations an uncomfortable echo of modern Ireland, and wondered how far we had really come in all that time. The bog people gave him a metaphor to write about Ireland during the Troubles. As his poem ends:
“Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.”