The Perfect Corpse: Nova on Bog Bodies

Yes, it’s tonight, and no, I hadn’t heard about it before. But PBS’s science show Nova is airing a documentary on bog bodies, featuring Tollund man, described on the program’s web site as “the most famous bog body of all” (he isn’t). The Nova shows usually repeat so I expect there will be other opportunities.

Two New Irish Bog Bodies

Both the BBC and the Mirror have articles about two “new” bog bodies. This has been a year for bog body announcements, apparently. The two bodies were found in 2003, the first was discovered in February of 2003 when a male torso fell off a peat harvesting machine in Clonycavan, near Dublin. The forearms, hands and lower abdomen are missing, probably damaged by the peat cutter. The second body, also male, was discovered in a bog 25 miles away in Croghan, Ireland. The details are being released now, prior to being featured in BBC Television’s BBC2 program Timewatch: The Bog Bodies is on BBC2 on Friday, January 20.

Radiocarbon dating suggests both men died around 2,300 years ago. The BBC reports that Old Croghan man was in his early to mid 20s, and, based on the length of his arms, around 6ft 6in tall. He had been tortured, which supports the conclusion that he was a sacrificial victim, and probably not willing; a cut on his arm suggests that he tried to defend himself before he was beheaded and dismembered, and his arms bound with hazel ropes before he was cast into the bog. His stomach contained the remains of his last meal—milk and cereals, while chemical analysis of his nails suggests a diet that included meat.

The BBC says of the other body that:

Clonycavan man was a young male no more than 5ft 2in tall. Beneath his hair, which retains its unusual “raised” style, was a massive wound caused by heavy cutting object that smashed open his skull.

Chemical analysis of the hair showed that Clonycavan man’s diet was rich in vegetables in the months leading up to his death, suggesting he died in summer.

It also revealed that he had been using a type of Iron Age hair gel; a vegetable plant oil mixed with a resin that had probably come from south-western France or Spain.

It’s the hairstyle of the Clonycavan body that I’m most interested in. The comments about the “raised” style, and the resin-based hair gel reminded me of this bit from Diordorus Siculus, who wrote c. 60–30 B. C. E.:

The Gauls are very tall with white skin and blond hair, not only blond by nature but more so by the artificial means they use to lighten their hair. For they continually wash their hair in a lime solution, combing it back from the forehead to the back of the neck. This process makes them resemble Satrys and Pans since this treatment makes the hair thick like a horse’s mane.

(Diodorus Siculus 5: 28. Trans. Phillip Freeman in The Celtic Heroic Age. Eds. John T. Koch and John Carey. 2nd ed. Maldon, MA: Celtic Studies Publications, 1995. 11).

The “raised” style, particularly one that’s encouraged by the application of lime or a resin based “mousse” would result in the sorts of hair style one sees on Celtic coins, like this British coin from the Iceni.

image of a coin from the Iceni, showing a head with spiky hair

British coin of the Iceni coin c. CE 61

It’s the same general kind of treated, stylized hair on the head of the Dying Gaul statue (a late Roman copy of a bronze from Pergamon).

The Dying Gaul  Rome Capitoline Museum

The Dying Gaul
Rome Capitoline Museum

Clonycavan’s hair style matches the descriptions of hair in the Táin, like the description of Cú: Chulainn’s hair during his rístarthae or “warp-spasm” in his battle-frenzy from the version in Leabhar na h-Uidhri / The Book of the Dun Cow as translated by Cecile O’Rahilly:

His hair curled about his head like branches of red hawthorn used to re-fence a gap in a hedge. If a noble apple-tree weighed down with fruit had been shaken about his hair, scarcely one apple would have reached the ground through it, but an apple would have stayed impaled on each separate hair because of the fierce bristling of his hair above his head (LU 2270–74).

A New Bog Body: “The Girl of the Uchter Moor”

There are a number of well-known bog bodies; the most recent, and the one we have the best data on, is Lindow Man. But recently a body was found in a peat bog in in the town of Uchte, in Lower Saxony (that’s in the northern part of Germany). Peat bogs are now mined with heavy machinery which remove blocks of peat for fuel. That means that bog finds, usually the remnants of Iron Age sacrifices, of humans as well as objects, are damaged. In this case, the bog has given up the preserved body of a young girl between 16 and 20, committed to the bog about 650 BC, earlier than both Lindow Man (between AD 20 and 90) and Denmark’s Tollund man (c. 350 B. C.).

The full article about “The Girl of the Uchter Moor,” as journalists are already calling this latest bog body, is here; there’s a lot more data to come, I’m sure. It’s a shame the body is in pieces—nonetheless, we might still learn how she died, whether she was killed as a sacrifice, and perhaps data about how she lived, based on things like her tooth enamel and clothing.