"Moora" stares across millennia, thanks to a digital reconstruction based on the Iron Age girl's fragmented skull—one of several interpretations released January 20.
Along with the nearly complete corpse of the teenager, peat bog workers found her 2,600-year-old skull bones—mangled by peat-harvesting machinery—in Germany's Lower Saxony state (map) in 2000.
At first, "the police thought it was a criminal case"—perhaps the remains of Elke Kerll, a young woman who disappeared in 1969—said Andreas Bauerochse, a paleoecologist with the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage.
But the DNA of the corpse and Kerll's living mother didn't match, and the identity of Moora—nicknamed after Uchter Moor, where the remains had been found—remained a mystery until 2005.
That year, peat workers found a hand at the same spot where the bog body had been found and scientists including Bauerochse were called in.
The hand was physically a good fit for the body, they found. What's more, by radiocarbon-dating the peat on the hand, the pair determined that Moora died about 650 B.C.
Illustration courtesy Ursula Wittwer-Backofen, University of Freiburg
Fractured by modern peat-harvesting machinery, Moora's skull also bears ancient fractures caused by blunt-force trauma, the scientists concluded.
Other evidence of a hard life include signs of chronic malnutrition—probably due to yearly winter food shortages—and a curved spine. None of these health problems were fatal, however, and the cause of Moora's death is still unknown.
No signs of clothing were found along with her body, but "if she wore clothes made of cotton or something similar, it would have been destroyed by the bog acid," Bauerochse said.
The team doesn't think Moora was purposely buried in the bog, because no jewelry or other artifacts were found and because Iron Age cultures typically cremated their dead.
By studying plant and pollen material preserved in the German peat bog where Moora was found (pictured), scientists have been able to partially piece together what the area was like when she lived 2,600 years ago.
Back then, the peat bogs were more numerous and included many waterways, which flowed around shrubby miniature soil "islands." On land around the bogs, Moora's people—perhaps an agrarian group called the Nienburg—likely planted cereal crops, the experts say.
Peat is accumulated dead plant matter, often harvested for use in farming or for burning in power plants or fireplaces. The bogs' lack of oxygen makes them inhospitable to fungi and bacteria that would otherwise degrade corpses.
Moora's face—or one version of it—takes shape, thanks to a facial-reconstruction artist who molded artificial modeling clay around one of the plastic models of the bog body's skull.
Skilled as they were at translating the structure of the skull into facial features, the artists still had to make educated guesses about some of Moora's features and traits, such as her hairstyle, her hair and eye color, the shapes of her lips, and her skin tone.
"It's about 90 percent science and 10 percent art," Bauerochse said.
"At first glance, the five results don't look very similar because of the different hairstyles and other things," Bauerochse said—as evidenced by this reconstruction that portrays the Iron Age teenager as slightly older.
"But if you stack the drawings one atop the other, you see that many things are remarkably consistent."
For example, the spacing of Moora's eyes, the position of her nose, and the shapes of her cheekbones are remarkably similar in all of the artists' reconstructions, he said.