When Roy van Beek was a teenager in the Netherlands in the early 1990s, he made a field trip to a local museum to see an exhibit of bog bodies: ancient human remains, both skeletal and naturally mummified, interred in the wetlands and spongy turf of northern Europe. He recalled one cadaver on display that was remarkably intact and oddly disorienting. The contorted body of a female about his age, roughly 4 feet 6 inches tall, who had lived in the first century A.D. “She had been left in a shallow mire south of the modern-day village of Yde,” said Dr. van Beek, now an archaeologist at Wageningen University & Research. Her skin had been tanned in the dark tea of the bog.
The Yde Girl, as she became known, was unearthed in 1897 by peat diggers so spooked by their gruesome discovery that they reportedly chorused “I hope the Devil gets the man that dug this hole” and fled the scene. The corpse was wearing a much-darned woolen cloak, which concealed a stab wound near her collarbone. A seven-foot-long strip of cloth, perhaps a waistband, was wound around her neck three times and its slipknot indented below her left ear. “The cloth was probably used to strangle her,” Dr. van Beek said. Most of the bog mummies that have turned up also show signs of multiple traumatic injuries and are presumed to be murder victims.
This month, Dr. van Beek was the lead author of the first comprehensive survey of bog bodies — a burial tradition believed to span 7,000 years. The multidisciplinary study, published in the journal Antiquity, created a database of more than 1,000 such bog people, some arrestingly lifelike, from 266 historical bog sites across a swath of northern Europe, from Ireland to the Baltic States.
Relying on recorded folklore, descriptions and depictions, newspaper reports and antiquarian records, a team of Dutch, Swedish and Estonian researchers focused on the rise of bog burials starting around 5200 B.C., in the Neolithic period and into the Bronze Age. The team took particular interest in the tradition’s efflorescence from 1000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., from the Iron Age to the medieval period.
“While a number of bog scholars have been arguing that we need to reconceptualize bog bodies to include the skeletonized remains from more alkaline bog lands and wetlands, this is the first major study to do it systematically,” Melanie Giles, a British archaeologist not involved in the study, said in an email. “The results are really quite important, showing a formal burial phase in the Bronze Age and a rise in violent deaths during the time in which these bogs, within certain hot spots, grow exponentially.”