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As the last layers of peat were removed from the body the group assembled around the hole gasped. The man was perfectly preserved, right down to the short hair on his head and stubble on his chin. Naked, stained brown, sunken and shrivelled his eyes were closed as if he was asleep but the rope tightened around his neck told another story. Those watching his exhumation were so spellbound by the moment they failed to notice the imperceptible movements in the peat bogs surrounding them, as hundreds of emaciated fingers forced their way to the light, freeing the way for even more shrunken stained bodies. As the eyelids of the bog man in the trench snapped open the screaming started
Well you will be pleased to know that only some of the above is true and that the rest of my review will confine itself only to the true bit!
The book in question deals with the finding and subsequent examination of these bog men who have been preserved in Danish peat bogs, often for more than 2000 years. The chemical properties of the peat have ensured that often they have been preserved almost intact, complete with clothing and sometimes tortured expressions. A suitable Halloween review then!
The unfortunately named P.V Glob credited on the cover was Professor Glob, a distinguished archaeologist and an expert on Danish prehistory; the Director of the National Museum in Copenhagen, who sadly died in 1985. Originally written in Danish this book was translated by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, the Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities in the British Museum. According to the Letter at the beginning of the book, Professor Glob began the book after a group of English schoolgirls asked for more information on one of his bog man discoveries, as he was heavily involved in the excavation, investigation and preservation of one of these Iron Age men. As a result of the girls eagerness we now have this 196 page book on this fascinating subject.
The Tollund Man was discovered by peat cutters in 1950 and is the man mentioned in my introduction, being found naked with a rope tied tightly around his neck. He was wearing a skin cap (found complete) over his short hair and the stubble on his chin was still visible. His eyeballs were still present behind his wizened eyelids and the remains of his last meal were found in his intestines (a barley gruel). He was so well preserved that the police were called but this man hadnt died recently, he had gone to his death in the bog 2000 years ago.
The Grauballe Man was of similar antiquity but his death was much less peaceful, his neck had been brutally slashed before he had been deposited in the bog. The descriptions of the beautifully preserved bodies of these two men make up the bulk of the first two chapters, including an analysis of the pollen grains found with the men and the contents of their stomachs which enabled the scientists to deduce they were killed in the winter/early spring. It also deals with a very amusing controversy which raged in Denmark when people claimed that the Grauballe Man was in fact a 19th century drunk labourer called Red Christian, which had me smiling wryly!
Other peat body finds are also discussed including those of a woman found held down in the bog by wooden crooks, who was imagined at the time to be the famous Queen Gunhild, supposedly drowned in the bogs by King Harald (according to legend anyway). Other bog women have been found with their outfits and hairstyles intact, allowing an unique view into Denmarks past. Decapitated heads wrapped in sheepskin were also found, offering material for historians attempting to understand the religious and social customs of the Iron Age Danish people. Carts have also been found intact or deliberately smashed as less gruesome dedications to their gods and these too have been extremely well preserved by the unique conditions provided by the peat bogs of Northern Europe.
Denmark of course is not the only country with peat bogs and other fascinating finds have been found in other countries, most interestingly the body of a girl found with a band wrapped around her eyes and a male skull with an intricate knot found in his perfect hair. Other finds in the bog come from a later period including a murdered medieval merchant (1360AD) whose costume was amazingly complete!
Finally Glob talks of how these people may have lived, how they dealt with death and some of the fertility customs that may have lead to human sacrifice. Some of the bog people do indeed appear to have been ritual sacrifices given to the bog or mother earth, or any other of the gods/goddesses worshipped at this time. The deaths of others seem to suggest punishment for crimes and Professor Glob expertly presents the evidence either way. The text is filled with references to Norse and Danish poetry, sagas and tales as well as a most apt quote from Gilgamesh The dead and the sleeping, how they resemble one another.
Globs writing style is both scholarly and romantic, scientific and sympathetic. Archaeological and anthropological material is interspersed with personal experience and descriptive passages, as well as information on Danish language and society. An eminently readable scholarly treatise, it also has a large bibliography for further investigation (unlike other historical books I have read recently!). As Professor Glob died so long ago this book isnt the most up-to-date, but I noticed that a new edition has been published in 2004 (the one shown is the 1998 version), with a new introduction so hopefully that would cover any subsequent gaps in research.
The text is accompanied by 76 black and white photographs of the bodies, their locations and other complementary material such as radiographies and other finds. These are not for the weak stomached amongst us, there are pictures of brains, empty eye sockets and the twisted bodies in situ. The bodies are emaciated, skeletal in parts and have suffered some damage from the peat cutters spades, as well as being in places somewhat juicy. One or two are a bit of a shock when you turn the page, but the overwhelming emotion I felt was pity and fascination, these bodies are amazing you can literally look into the eyes of a man who died 2000 years ago. The clothes and other artefacts offer another window into the past, from the Iron Age woman to the 14th century merchant they are so well preserved it seems almost as if they could be worn today. The complete hairstyle of the Iron Age woman in particular looks surprisingly complicated and modern, tied in a twisted bun at the back of her head.
Other pictures include the contents of an Iron Age purse, fertility images from the time and simple wooden gods that have been found in bogs. The pictures perfectly complement the text and I often flick through the book to have a quick look now and again, they are intriguing in their own right.
This book is one of my all time favourites and one I regularly return to. Its one of the easiest ways to touch the past and it constantly reaffirms my interest in history. Here you can really look into faces from the past and once you get past the squick factor, its a totally compelling read. I defy anyone to read this book and not finish it with an invigorated respect and interest in those who lived before us and who were members of a society that we are only just beginning to understand. Highly recommended.
***ISBN and Price***
The book featured above is the 1998 version and is currently only available from Amazon Marketplace for £2.
The 2004 version is available for £7.53 from Amazon and from £4.58 on Amazon Marketplace.
From time to time workers in bogs throughout Europe accidentally expose the sunken bodies of people who died 2000 or more years ago. The bo g waters have kept the bodies from decay, sometimes even preserving the facial expression at the moment of death, and many of the bodies bear signs of violent ends. This book seeks to cast light on these Iron Age people, their lives, their religion, and the rituals they performed in unfrequented wood and groves.