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A photo of the Tollund Man, a body found in a Danish bog.

Tollund Man, who was hanged with a leather cord and cast into a Danish bog, is housed at Denmark's Silkeborg Museum.

Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

Christine Dell'Amore in Copenhagen

National Geographic

Published July 18, 2014

Cast into northern European wetlands, bog bodies have long appeared as opaque to archaeologists as their dark and watery graves. But new clues are coming in the centuries-old mystery of their origins.

Over 500 Iron Age bog bodies and skeletons dating to between 800 B.C. and A.D. 200 have been discovered in Denmark alone, with more unearthed in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. (Read "Tales From the Bog" in National Geographic magazine.)

Much of the bodies' skin, hair, clothes, and stomach contents have been remarkably well preserved, thanks to the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of peat bogs, which are made up of accumulated layers of dead moss.

Tollund Man, for example, found in 1950 on Denmark's Jutland Peninsula and perhaps the most famous bog body in the world, still "has this three-day beard—you feel he will open his eyes and talk to you. It's something that not even Tutankhamun could make you feel," said Karin Margarita Frei, a research scientist who studies bog bodies at the National Museum of Denmark.

In Denmark, about 30 of these naturally mummified corpses are housed in museums, where scientists have worked for decades to figure out who these people were and why they died.

Because some bear horrific wounds, such as slashed throats, and were buried instead of cremated like most others in their communities, scientists have suggested the bodies had been sacrificed as criminals, slaves, or simply commoners. The Roman historian Tacitus started this idea in the first century A.D. by suggesting they were deserters and criminals. (See National Geographic's pictures of bog bodies.)

But ongoing research is uncovering an entirely new dimension: When alive, these people of the bog may have instead been special members of their villages, which in the early Iron Age were loosely scattered across Denmark.

New chemical analyses applied to two of the Danish bog bodies, Huldremose Woman and Haraldskær Woman, show that they had traveled long distances before their deaths. What's more, some of their clothing had been made in foreign lands and was more elaborate than previously thought.

"You sacrifice something that is meaningful and has a lot of value. So maybe people who [had] traveled had a lot of value," Frei told National Geographic at the Euroscience Open Forum in Copenhagen in June.

A photo of the clothing from the Huldremose Woman, the body of a woman preserved in a bog.
Analysis of Huldremose Woman's leather cape and woolen scarf and skirt show that the clothing had been made outside of Denmark.
Photograph courtesy of The National Museum of Denmark

Supernatural Portal?

For Europeans dating as far back as the Neolithic period 6,000 years ago, bogs were both resources and possibly ominous supernatural portals, according to Ulla Mannering, an expert in ancient textiles at the National Museum of Denmark.

The bogs' peat, which could be burned for heating homes, was valuable in tree-scarce Denmark, and an ore called bog iron was made into tools and weapons.

Among prehistoric people, "when you take things, you also offer things," said Mannering.

This may be why the Danish villagers would deposit "gifts" of clothes, old shoes, slaughtered animals, battered weapons, and, for a period of 500 years, people into the black abyss of the bogs. (Related: "Medieval Christian Book Discovered in Ireland Bog.")

Danish Iron Age cultures left no written records, so their religious beliefs are unknown, Mannering noted.

"Very Fine Lady"

When peat harvesters began accidentally unearthing bog bodies in the mid to late 1800s, many were discovered without clothing, solidifying the view that they had been simple people, Frei said. (Watch a National Geographic Channel video about bog mummies.)

Tollund Man, for instance, was found with a belt but no clothes. "It doesn't make sense to be naked and have a belt," Frei pointed out.

Frei wondered, then, if some of the bog bodies' clothing had dissolved in the bogs over the centuries. So she decided to examine Huldremose Woman, a mummy discovered in 1879 wearing a checkered skirt and scarf, both made of sheep's wool, and two leather capes.

Using microscopes, she discovered that tiny plant fibers were stuck to the 2,300-year-old woman's skin—remnants of ancient underwear, which later analyses revealed were likely made of flax.

Next, Frei performed a first-of-its-kind analysis of the strontium isotope contained in the flax and in the wool from the skirt and scarf.

Researchers analyzed the isotopes, or different varieties, of atoms in the strontium preserved in the flax and wool fibers. These atoms provide a chemical insight into the geology of the region where the plant and sheep lived.

The results show that the plant fibers taken from threads of the underwear grew on terrains geologically older than those of Denmark—those typical of northern Scandinavia, such as Norway or Sweden—suggesting that Huldremose Woman may have come from somewhere else, according to research published in 2009 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Frei also did an analysis of strontium isotopes in Huldremose Woman's skin. Humans absorb strontium through food and water, and it's especially prevalent in our teeth and bones—though many bog bodies are found without teeth and bones because of the acidic conditions.

A photo of the body of the Harakdskaer Woman, a body found in a bog.
Haraldskær Woman, who is kept at Denmark's Vejle Museum, was first thought to be a Norwegian queen.
Photograph courtesy of Vejle Museum 2013

The research revealed that Huldremose Woman's body contained strontium atoms from locales outside Denmark—showing she had traveled abroad before she ended up in the bog. (See "Pictures: Ancient Bog Girl's Face Reconstructed.")

Another study published in 2009 by Mannering revealed that Huldremose Woman's woolen garments—turned brown by the bog—were originally blue and red: Dyed clothing is a sign of wealth, she says. Mannering and colleagues also found a ridge in Huldremose Woman's finger that may have indicated it once bore a gold ring before it disintegrated in the bog.

"At first we thought this must be a witch—now we think she's a very fine lady with expensive jewelry and expensive clothes and underwear," Frei said.

"It had been overlooked that there is such a wealth of resource in these textiles and skin," Mannering added.

What's more, the research shows that early Iron Age cultures of the centuries just before and after Christ were more interconnected than thought, Frei said.

For instance, wool and plant fibers were either traded or brought as raw materials for textiles more commonly and over longer distances than previously assumed, according to Frei's research.

"This was seen as a period where society was very closed—not much trade with the outside world," she said. "Suddenly we can see, yes, there was."

Lotte Hedeager, an expert in Iron Age archaeology at the University of Oslo in Norway, agreed, noting that "these results require a rethinking" of the communication and trade networks among northern European cultures in the early Iron Age.

The Hair Has It

Building on their discoveries with Huldremose Woman, Frei and colleagues wanted to see if other bodies were outsiders.

So they turned to Haraldskær Woman, a bog body housed at the Vejle Museum in Denmark, who was found in 1835 and originally thought to be the Norwegian Queen Gunhild. (Also see "'Frankenstein' Bog Mummies Discovered in Scotland.")

New developments in strontium isotope tracing technology make it possible to detect strontium isotopes in human hair, which can show where a person lived over the last few years of his or her life. Since hair grows slowly, analyzing strontium atoms at the root of someone's hair versus the bottom of their hair may reveal geographic movements.

The longer the hair, the longer the record of their movements—which makes Haraldskær Woman, with her 20-inch-long locks (50 centimeters), a perfect subject.

Excitingly, preliminary results of the analysis, still unpublished, mirror the findings for Huldremose Woman—Haraldskær Woman had lived elsewhere before her death. The scientists are also examining her clothing, which may have been produced in another location.

"DNA cannot tell you that—it can tell you your genetic makeup, but [not] where you were born, where you had your childhood, where you had the last years of your life," Frei said.

Frei and colleagues are now running strontium isotopic analyses on the skin of Tollund Man to see where he'd been before his death.

A photo of a bog where the remains of Tollund Man was found.
A small part of the bog remains where Tollund Man was found on Denmark's Jutland Peninsula.
Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

Geographic Outsiders

Other experts agree that the research indicates the bog bodies were people considered unique in their villages.

To Heather Gill-Frerking, a mummy researcher for the museum-exhibit company American Exhibitions, the new findings are "really nice evidence" for her theory that bog bodies were what she calls "geographic outsiders"—people who may have married into Danish communities, or had been doing work or apprenticeships abroad.

Gill-Frerking has suggested for years that bog bodies weren't the results of some religious rite, but were instead foreigners placed into the bog.

These people may not have been cremated like everyone else because they hadn't yet assimilated into their communities, or perhaps because the communities weren't aware of the dead person's burial customs. (She said it's likely some of the bog bodies were buried after they'd died of natural causes.)

"I'm a big believer of multiple interpretations of bog bodies, not just [that they were] rituals," she said.

If Frei continues to find that those buried in the bog had traveled before their deaths, "we'd need to look hard at the ritual theory and look at bodies as individuals."

"Secret of the Bogs"

Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied bog bodies, believes that they were sacrificed—but the enigma, he said, revolves around why.

The new discoveries that at least one of the bodies may have been that of a foreigner, he says, "certainly adds to that discussion of, 'Who were the people who were sacrificed?'" (See "Murdered 'Bog Men' Found With Hair Gel, Manicured Nails.")

For instance, Lynnerup suggested that perhaps they had a special status because they came from abroad or were hostages of raiding parties into other areas.

It's also possible that, as was the case with some Inca sacrifices, the person considered it an honor to be chosen and voluntarily went to the bog.

"Having the additional information that at least one of them was not local is terribly important, and [it] will be highly interesting to see if this pattern goes on."

Overall, the archaeologists acknowledged it's likely there will always be more questions than answers when it comes to mysterious bog bodies.

Added the University of Oslo's Hedeager: "We will never be able to uncover the perception of life and death of those individuals 2,000 years ago.

"That remains a true secret of the bogs."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

71 comments
Steve Foos
Steve Foos

"This may be why the Danish villagers would deposit "gifts" of clothes, old shoes, slaughtered animals, battered weapons, and, for a period of 500 years, people into the black abyss of the bogs."

- I wonder if someday they'll say that about all the tires and junk appliances our generations have tossed in rivers and lakes. 

Ali B.
Ali B.

"You sacrifice something that is meaningful and has a lot of value. So maybe people who [had] traveled had a lot of value".

Uh, maybe that a strange way for arguing things that have no clues.

"That remains a true secret of the bogs."

Yes i believe.

James Donnaught
James Donnaught

It's hard to imagine a "ritual" of violent death that would be common to Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.  And there's one other curious feature the bog bodies have in common: so far as I know, every bog body has been found without a trace of valuables - no gold, no jewels, no coins  The implication seems to be pretty clear: these are victims of robbery and murder.

We read of bodies mostly stripped naked, and one apparently wealthy woman with nice clothing but - again- no jewelry. It's reasonable to think that it would have been especially difficult to sell off her fine blue- and red-dyed clothing, compared to everything else one might take from a victim . . . especially if the victim and her clothes were prominently known to everybody in town.


I'm sticking with robbery and murder, with the bogs being near-perfect places to get rid of the bodies.  Find one body - just one - with gold or jewelry on it, and I'll reconsider. 

Darren Shao
Darren Shao

The mummy shall be somebody prestigious

Liliya K
Liliya K

Taking in account that this people were wealthy and were, possibly, murdered as a result of a robbery. This people, especially rich people, didn't travel alone, they were with their family plus an escort. So, why we find one person, instead of 2 or more in the same bog? Well, another members could be killed or taken as a slaves, of course.

craig hill
craig hill

The discovery of the foreign and wealthier quality of these victims (foeign "volunteers" of sacrifice seems ridiculous) smacks to me of travelers who were robbed of their belongings, missing from the bogs because the reason the bog people were killed was to steal those possessions. That they were outsiders tells me they were easily preyed upon by gangs of locals, perhaps, who hid the bodies of their victims, strangers, in the bogs with no local authorities, whoever they may have been, the wiser for the lack of awareness these people were even in the area. The idea these murders were ever a religious ritual smells to me of giving these deaths a religious patina to protect and improve the modern reputations of the descendants of locals who may have been roaming highwaymen, or even entire groups of families preying on wealthy travelers passing through. It's not as if robbery and murder never happened in medieval Europe, but perhaps that they were literally unheard of because they have never been seen as suspicious victims of attack, robbery and murder.

Barbara Brown
Barbara Brown

For someone who was hanged, Tollund Man has the most profound peaceful look on his face. I find that very hard to understand.

Leif Leifnephewson
Leif Leifnephewson

Robbed and murdered travelers, with the evidence disposed of where no one would look: the bog.

Gregory George
Gregory George

Burial in bogs was likely a way of treating deaths thought due to disease or spirits.    Foreigners were more likely to be considered disease carriers.  I suspect we will find DNA of plague bacillus if we examine these bodies for it.


Cremation yielded smoke thought to carry disease and ash which had to be handled.

david bailey
david bailey

I think they were rich travelers who were robbed and buried in hast.

Lavonia Grimes
Lavonia Grimes

Is the DNA of all the bog bodies, different, unrelated?

Patty Brown
Patty Brown

"You go to find the Mewlips....    ...and the Mewlips feed."

Ernie Jurick
Ernie Jurick

Perhaps an early attempt at discouraging illegal immigrants?

Michael Johnston
Michael Johnston

Unransomed hostages? Hostage-taking for ransom was a popular activity in early historical Europe.

Kenneth Gardner
Kenneth Gardner

They keep trying to elevate these people to some great status.  My common sense, and I'm sure that I will take some heat from this, is that 1) They traveled so they probably brought disease. It wasn't too hard once one of these strangers had shown up and loved ones started getting sick and dying who was most likely to blame.  Kill that bastard.2) Maybe they were bullied for being foreigners and committed suicide or were just outright murdered out of hatred?  Hello, even though we have political correctness in America today, try stepping back in time just a few years or even to a present day foreign country.  See how warm the welcome is. Remember lynching? 3) Sick old weirdo, richer, more worldly person who I am jealous of or believe all the bad rumors about is not going to be buried where my family is.  Chuck 'em out back in the bog.  Is this starting to make sense?  I mean, we are talking about ancient humans here, not a race from space.

Maelduin Tamhlacht
Maelduin Tamhlacht

Perhaps some of these, like Huldremose Woman with her stylish over-the-shoulder leather cloak and her red-and-blue plaid outfit, the mark of her gold ring and her linen underwear, were the Irish princesses the Scandinavians were so fond of kidnapping?

Christy Robertson
Christy Robertson

The article states that gold dissolves in the acidity of the bog environment, therefore no jewelry.

Michael  Urian
Michael Urian

@Liliya K  While I was reading this, the thought popped into my head that it could have been robbers. Most of the bodies were said to have dated back to 800 BC, right? Well this was a little bit before the founding of Rome (correct me if I am wrong) so I think that it is likely to have been bandits who killed these people, since there was truly no real order in that time.

Paul Golonski
Paul Golonski

@craig hill


Good theory except they were buried with their wealthy clothes.  Typical robbers would take clothes which represented much more important portions of personal wealth than they do today.

Darren Shao
Darren Shao

@Barbara Brown  I agree with you. There is simply no sign of horror or grimace.

Michael  Urian
Michael Urian

@Barbara Brown  It could be that he was sacrificed, and typically in those days, sacrifices knew what would happen to them, and they would go to whatever heaven they believed in. At least I think so.

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

@Leif Leifnephewson hahaha. thats funny. just sweep them under the rug! nobody will look there haha .. i read your comment twice and started to think .. we just found them, like, recently. nobody found them for thousands of years? it is interesting how much we have evolved in such a short period of time to think that a place like that would be where to look first, these days, but back then nobody would look, maybe . .

craig hill
craig hill

@Gregory George: Rich travelers riddled with disease? Seems far-fetched to me. What an excuse. "OMG here come some more wealthy people with horses, wagons and coins. if we don't kill them like we did the others and keep their things they might infect us with plague." Back then i don't know for certain travelers were necessarily associated with being plague-bearers. Tho their having been disposed in the bog makes it a possibility. That they were well-to-do makes that the more suspicious motive; if there were never any poor travelers found in the bog, that could explain why.

Tena Michel
Tena Michel

@david bailey If they were thieves, they would have taken
Huldremose Woman's clothing.  Even during the Renaissance, clothing was all hand-made & so expensive that even royals didn't discard older garments, so dyed wool would have been worth its weight in gold 2,300 years ago.

Tena Michel
Tena Michel

@Lavonia Grimes Don't be ridiculous, of course it is.  These bog bodies are found all over, with great distances between them.

Rarian Rakista
Rarian Rakista

@Ernie Jurick 1800 years before the concept of nation states?  Do you right wingers even have a basic concept of human history?  

Tena Michel
Tena Michel

@Ernie Jurick They didn't have immigration laws back then, so that's kind of stupid.  Always some idiot trying to turn everything into political commentary.  Either that, or some Fundamentalist trying to prove that God created the universe in 6 days.

craig hill
craig hill

@Michael Johnston Then you have the possibility of the local authorities behind such kidnappings. But it's more unrealistic in that others in the area and outside the area where the victims came from could gather forces strong enough to threaten those locals. I think ransom in bog country very unlikely.

Tena Michel
Tena Michel

@Michael Johnston At least you have an intelligent suggestion!  Some of these comments cause me to despair the future of the human race.

Tena Michel
Tena Michel

@Maelduin Tamhlacht You've been reading too many romance novels.  The Norse weren't kidnapping "Irish princesses," they were raiding villages for slaves.  Fair-haired women were prized by those in the Middle East, and the Vikings were eager to supply them. And Janet Reedman is correct: too early.

Janet Reedman
Janet Reedman

@Maelduin Tamhlacht Too early though. Iron Age. Remember that  prehistoric Denmark and Germany, where many bog bodies are found, were areas of Celtic culture in this era, not just Germanic.

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@Winey Goonbag @James Donnaught The article mentions that even gold (a ring) dissolves in the acidic bog. Most of the valuables you mention would be metal and bone. If you were going to rob someone back then, you would likely take the fancy clothes too (some were found nude, however). The problem may be trying to establish a single cause or reason for the bodies when the only thing they all have in common is ending up in a bog.


Some could be crime victims

Some could be natural causes (burial)

Some could be natural causes (happened to die in the bog)

Some could be sacrifices

Some could be executions

Some could be...

Megan Morris
Megan Morris

@Michael Urian @Liliya K

Why do you say there was no real order? It may not have been order the way we know it in the Western world today, but ancients peoples did have societies with rules and consequences.

Roy Harper
Roy Harper

@Paul Golonski @craig hill  problem with your answer is that we have no idea of the total amt of items and or wealth they had so that does no prove that they were buried with it all

craig hill
craig hill

@Paul Golonski @craig hill Yeah, it's possible that the clothing they wore was considered a sacrifice given up by their murderers. Or as mentioned earlier, if thieves were trying to dispose quickly of their victims, they chose to concentrate on the much more vast sums of items they were carrying with them! Otherwise, has there been any evidence in the bogs of their horses or wagons and Gaia knows what attractions within their vehicles of transportation? Rich ladies would not be expected to travel on horseback as if on a month-long camping trip, wearing their fine clothing. They certainly wouldn't have been walking hundreds of miles on foot. The absence in the bogs of the greatest portion of their possessions---they also didn't wear just a single garment all that way, and certainly not their finest---they knew of robbers and tried to take precautions, that's how they stayed rich!  Where did all that go if not with them in the bog? Which suggests the single greatest motive was robbery, not the relatively absurd "sacrifice"! 

craig hill
craig hill

@Tena Michel @david bailey Not if the riches she had with her, and the screams of alarm she PROBABLY uttered, required her robber-murderers to dispose of her quickly to be able to get away with any of it.

david bailey
david bailey

@Tena Michel @david bailey 


If you were caught with expensive items, It would be hard to explain where they came from.

craig hill
craig hill

@Rarian Rakista & Tena Michel @Ernie Jurick : You're foolishly hung up on the concept of "undocumented immigranrts" and the like. You think distrust, hatred and robbery of foreigners is out of the question?! It's been a common human reaction to strangers always and ever. If attacks on strangers was intended to keep others like them away, why not?! It's a definite possibility. 

craig hill
craig hill

@Tena Michel @Maelduin Tamhlacht You have a reference to your belief that fair-haired women, which may as well have been as prized as "Irish princesses" , were so valued as what, trophy slaves? Something that's not out of your preferred library of romance fiction??

Maelduin Tamhlacht
Maelduin Tamhlacht

@Janet Reedman @Maelduin Tamhlacht I wasn't suggesting that these were Vikings; the seas were roads for thousands of years, and those dratted Scandinavians were always robbers, long before the Viking era.

As for the Irish princess biz, I'm not suggesting that these unfortunate girls were literally princesses (though the lass with the stylish wool and linen and leather clothes was probably from a well-off family), but noting that this is how the legend is expressed in modern Scandinavia. 

Maelduin Tamhlacht
Maelduin Tamhlacht

@craig hill I don't have any theories, or indeed any preferred brand of romance fiction, but the Icelanders, for instance, have DNA that shows predominantly Scandinavian fathers and Irish mothers in their ancestry. It suggests kidnap and rape more than any romantic theory.

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