On May 6, 1950, peat cutters Viggo and Emil Hojgaard were making their way into the Bjældskovdal swamp, 12 kilometres west of Silkeborg, Denmark, when they discovered a body submerged approximately 10 feet underwater in the mud. The body’s facial expressions were so lifelike at first that the men mistook it for a recent murder victim, when they were actually standing in front of one of the world’s oldest mud mummies.
He was dubbed “Tollund Man” by archaeologists after the village where the workers lived. The corpse was naked and resting in a foetal position, wearing a sheepskin cap and a wool thong attached under its chin. Despite the fact that he lacked pants, he donned a belt. A millimetre of stubble was found on his chin and upper lip, indicating that he shaved the day before his death.
The most intriguing element in the midst of so much information was the noose made of braided animal skin that was tied firmly around Tollund Man’s neck, indicating that he had been hanged. Despite the brutality of his death, he maintained a calm demeanour, his eyes slightly closed and his lips pursed, as if reciting a secret prayer.
It was during the Iron Age, around 3900 B.C. when agriculture had already been established in Europe through migrant farmers, that human bodies began to be buried in the peat bogs that covered most of the northern half of the continent, where the zones were wetter.
Because cremation was a typical method of disposing of dead at the period, archaeologists determined that burying bodies in the marsh must have occurred for a specific reason, such as in ritual instances. The majority of the bodies discovered in Denmark, for example, had signs indicating a cultural history of killing and burying these individuals in the mud.
These pre-Roman peoples, who lived in hierarchical societies, bred animals in captivity and even fished in the marshes, which they viewed as a type of “supernatural gateway” between this world and the next. As a result, they frequently placed offerings on them, such as bronze or gold necklaces, bracelets, and rings intended for goddesses and gods of fertility and wealth.
That’s how researchers deduced that the bodies buried in the dirt were human sacrifices to the gods – in other words, they had been killed. The victims discovered in the Danish marshes were always between the ages of 16 and 20, and they had been stabbed, beaten, hung, tortured, strangled, and even decapitated.
The natural accident of preservation
The bodies were invariably nude, with a piece of clothing or an ornament – as was the case with Tollund Man, according to archaeologist PV. Glob. They were usually fastened in the mud with stones or a type of stick mesh, indicating a genuine desire to keep them there with no prospect of emergence, as if there was a concern that they could return.
Chemical analyses of two Danish “mud mummies” revealed that they had travelled great distances before dying, indicating that they were not from that region. “You make a sacrifice of something significant and valuable. Perhaps those who journeyed there were of tremendous value,” Karin Margarita Frei, a scientist at Denmark’s National Museum, said.
The bodies, which have been under the grass for more than 2,400 years, astound everyone due to their excellent state of conservation, complete with hair, nails, and even identifiable facial expressions. All of this is ascribed to a totally normal process, yet it is referred to as a “biological accident”.
When peat dies and is replaced by new peat, the old material rots and generates humic acid, also known as swamp acid, with pH values comparable to vinegar, resulting in the same fruit preservation effect. Peatlands, in addition to having a very acidic environment, have a low oxygen concentration, which prevents the bacterial metabolism that promotes the breakdown of organic matter from occurring.
The bodies were placed by people throughout the winter or early spring, when the water temperature exceeds -4°C, allowing the swamp acids to saturate the tissues and thwart the rotting process. As the layers of sphagnum die, releasing polysaccharides, the corpse was enveloped by this moss in an envelope that prevented the circulation of water, decomposition or any oxygenation.
On one hand, this “natural accident” plays a complete role in preserving the skin, but on the other hand, bones are corroded and the acids in swampy water destroy human DNA, making genetic studies unfeasible. In 1950, when Tollund Man was X-rayed, they found that his brain was very well preserved, but the structures were totally damaged.
Despite this, the mummies’ soft tissues provided enough data to determine even what their last meal was. Grauballe Man, for example, ate a porridge made from 60 different types of plants, containing enough rye spurs to poison him. Old Croghan, found in Ireland, ate a lot of meat, grain and dairy before being dragged into the mud.
When they were alive, most of the swamp mummies were malnourished, but some displayed characteristics that indicated they had a high social status. On the other side, finding someone who didn’t have a deformity was tough. Miranda Aldhouse-Green, an archaeologist, believes that these unique characteristics may have led to their ending up under the bog since they were deemed “visually special.”
Mud mummies have continued to appear over the years, but their number is as unknown as the circumstances under which they transitioned from living beings to corpses in a marsh. Furthermore, they are being harmed throughout the excavation process since no one knows where they will be buried, their bodies shrinking and burdened with thousands of years of information.