For centuries, archaeologists and other scholars have been trying to unravel the mystery behind the hundreds of bodies—the oldest dating back some 10,000 years—found buried in the wetlands of Northern Europe. Due to lack of oxygen and the anti-microbial properties of peat moss, many of the “bog bodies” found in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and especially Denmark are startlingly well-preserved, with discernible facial features, fingerprints, hair, nails and other identifying traits. Most of them date to the Iron Age—the centuries before and after the birth of Christ—and many show signs of torture or other violence. Cremation was customary at that time, so bog burial must have been a special event. Yet Iron Age Europeans left no written records about their customs or rituals, and scholars have only been able to speculate about how and why the bog bodies ended up where they did.
Ireland’s Countess of Moira, an avid antiquarian, launched these speculations in 1783 by proposing that the bodies could belong to victims of Druid ceremonies. Others have used writings of the Roman historian Tacitus from the first century A.D. to support the theory that they were executed deserters. Less convincingly, researchers in Nazi Germany searched for evidence that the bog bodies were specimens of a proto-Germanic people from which the so-called “Nordic” race descended. Despite the range of hypotheses proposed, today’s archaeologists generally agree that most of the bog bodies seem to be evidence of the Iron Age ritual of human sacrifice. First proposed in the 1950s, this theory goes that the victims could have been offerings to pacify Nordic gods like Odin or Nerthus after a bad harvest or other misfortune. However, a team of forensic investigators in Denmark examined that country’s bog bodies in recent years and determined that some damage previously believed to be evidence of torture or other violence was in fact inflicted centuries after death. The only conclusion that seems certain is that despite centuries of study, the mystery of the bog bodies endures.