The Bog Bodies of Europe

Hand of the Grauballe Man Bog Body, Mosegaard-Museum, Denmark
Hand of the Grauballe Man Bog Body, Mosegaard-Museum, Denmark. Malene Bruger

The term bog bodies (or bog people) is used to refer to ancient, naturally-mummified human burials recovered from peat bogs in Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Britain, and Ireland. The highly acidic peat acts as a remarkable preservative, leaving the clothing and skin intact, and creating poignant and memorable images of people of the past.

Fast Facts: Bog Bodies

  • Bog bodies are hundreds of human remains recovered from peat bogs in Europe since the 15th century
  • Most date between 800 BCE–400 CE
  • The oldest dates to the Neolithic (8000 BCE); the most recent 1000 CE
  • The best-preserved were placed in acidic pools in

How Many Bog Bodies Are There?

Estimates of the number of bodies pulled from the bog range between 200–700. The reason there is such a great discrepancy is partly that they were first rediscovered in the 15th century and records are shaky. One historic reference dated to 1450 is of a group of peasants in Bonsdörp, Germany, who found a man's body stuck in a peat bog with a noose around his neck. The parish priest said to leave him there; other instances have occurred where the bodies have been brought to churchyards for reburial, but in this case, the priest said, the elves had clearly placed him there.

The oldest bog body is Koelbjerg Man, a skeletalized body recovered from a peat bog in Denmark and dated to the Neolithic (Maglemosian) period about 8,000 BCE. The most recent dates to about 1000 CE, the skeletonized Sedelsberger Dose Man from Germany. By far, most of the bodies were placed in the bogs during the European Iron Age and Roman period, between about 800 BC and CE 400.

Why Are They Preserved?

The bodies are most fascinating to us because the state of preservation occasionally allows us to see a person's face from so long ago that you might recognize them. Those are very few: many of the bog bodies are only body parts—heads, hands, legs—some have skin with hair but no bones; some are bones and hair but no skin or flesh. Some are only partly preserved.

The best-preserved are the ones that were placed in acidic pools of water in a peat bog during the winter. Bogs permit the best state of preservation if:

  • the water is deep enough to prevent attack by maggots, rodents or foxes and adequately oxygen-deficient to prevent bacterial decay;
  • the pool contains sufficient tannic acid to preserver the outer layers; and
  • the temperature of the water is below 4 degrees Celsius.

The evidence clearly shows that the best-preserved bodies were placed in the bogs during the winter—even the contents of the stomachs reveal that, but it was likely that bog burials stemming from ritual sacrifices and executions occurred year-round.

Estonian Peat Bog Lake in Winter
Estonian Peat Bog Lake in Winter. APeriamPhotography / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Why Were They Put There?

In almost all cases, the bodies were deliberately placed into the pools. Many of the bodies were either murdered, or executed for some crime, or ritually sacrificed. Many of them are naked, and sometimes the clothes are placed near the body—also well-preserved. It isn't just bodies that are preserved, the Assendelver Polders Project preserves several houses from an Iron Age village near Amsterdam.

According to the Roman historian Tacitus (56–120 CE), there were executions and sacrifices under Germanic law: traitors and deserters were hung, and poor fighters and notorious evil-livers were plunged into marshes and pinned there. Certainly, many of the bog bodies are dated to the period in which Tacitus was writing. Tacitus is generally thought to be a propagandist to one way or another, so his exaggerating the barbaric customs of a subject people is perhaps likely: but there is no doubt that some of the Iron Age burials were hung, and some bodies were pinned into the marshes. 

Bog Bodies

Denmark: Grauballe Man, Tollund Man, Huldre Fen Woman, Egtved Girl, Trundholm Sun Chariot (not a body, but from a Danish bog all the same)

Germany: Kayhausen Boy

UK: Lindow Man

Ireland: Gallagh Man

Selected Sources