Since the 18th century, workers in the peat bogs of northern Europe (including Ireland, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and especially Denmark) have discovered as many as 1,000 human corpses. The age of these “bog bodies” span thousands of years, from the Stone Age to World War II, but most date to around 700 B.C. to A.D. 200, during the Iron Age. Archaeologists and other scholars have wrestled with the mystery of their deaths for centuries, producing theories ranging from accidents to Druid ceremonies to prisoner executions. In a new book, the British archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green argues that the most likely conclusion—based on the evidence available—is that the bog bodies were victims of human sacrifice.

For centuries, archaeologists and other scholars have been trying to solve the mystery ) behind the hundreds of bodies found over the past three centuries in peat bogs across northern Europe. Cremation was the most common burial practice in Iron Age Europe, so we know bog burial must indicate some kind of special event…but what exactly? Theories over the years have ranged from accidental deaths to prisoner executions to Druid ceremonies, with little conclusive evidence found to put the mystery to rest.

Many of the bog bodies are strikingly well preserved, including facial features, fingerprints, hair, nails and other identifying traits. The lack of oxygen in peat bogs helps slow bacterial growth, and peat moss also has natural anti-microbial properties thanks to a plant known as sphagnum, which releases polysaccharides that block bacterial metabolism. While this process preserves skin, fur, wood and textiles, the peat bogs have eaten away at the bones of the sunken corpses, leaving shrunken skeletons or dissolving them completely. Acids in the bog water have also destroyed any DNA, making genetic study impossible.

Lindow Man, a Celtic "bog body" likely ritually killed in the 2nd century B.C. (Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Lindow Man, a Celtic “bog body” likely ritually killed in the 2nd century B.C. (Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Despite these difficulties, we’ve been able to learn a great deal about the bog bodies thanks to the preservation of soft tissue like skin and hair. Scientists have determined the individuals were of varying age, sex and social status, using details like the food they ate in their final hours and the state of their fingernails, as well as their clothing and hairstyles. Most importantly, the peat bogs have preserved evidence of the violent manner in which many of the individuals found in the bog died, including signs of torture, mutilation and dismemberment.

As reported in the Atlantic, Miranda Aldhouse-Green, a British archaeologist and expert on Celtic antiquity, is the author of a new book called “Bog Bodies Uncovered.” Based on forensic examinations of the bodies, the writings of classical authors and other evidence, she argues that the bog bodies were most likely victims of human sacrifice—ritually murdered and left in the peat bogs to appease the gods.

There are some potential weaknesses to this theory, as Aldhouse-Green acknowledges. Roman historians like Strabo, Tacitus, and Julius Caesar were inherently biased in their accounts of northern Europeans performing human sacrifices. They were outsiders in the culture, for one, with no understanding of its rites and rituals, and they had their own agenda to pursue in writing such gruesome accounts. The archaeological record is also inconclusive: Though it contains signs of human and animal sacrifice, and material offerings to the bog, no clear evidence exists of any rituals or beliefs behind such ceremonies.

bog-bodies-smallThe best evidence to support the case for human sacrifice, it turns out, may be the bog bodies themselves—specifically the highly unusual way in which many of them appear to have met their ends. In the case of one famous bog body, known as the Lindow Man, the victim (in his mid-twenties) was led into a marsh outside Cheshire, England around A.D. 60, naked except for a fur armband. After hitting him on the head, his killer(s) slit his throat while throttling him with a cord, producing a dramatic geyser of blood. They then gave a sharp kick to the small of his back to push him into the bog, where workers found his body some 2,000 years later while digging for peat in the Lindow Moss.

Another victim, a teenager from northern German known as the Kayhausen Boy, was hogtied before his death; the victim dubbed the Haraldskaer Woman was killed with a garrote. Forensic examination has also revealed that many of the victims’ bodies were mutilated after their deaths, including their arms being pierced or their wounds raked with willow branches. The elaborate nature of these murders, and the preparation that appears to have gone into them, suggest these weren’t ordinary killings.

Even more disturbingly, Aldhouse-Green suggest it might not be coincidence that many of the bog bodies discovered show signs of having physical deformities, ranging from minor flaws such as a cauliflower ear or curved spine to gigantism, dwarfism or an extra set of thumbs. She believes the victims might have been selected for sacrifice because of such unique physical traits, possibly because of the spiritual power they may have been thought to possess.