Bog Body: How Old is the Tollund Man?

Bog Body: How Old is the Tollund Man?

Head of bog body Tollund Man.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On 8 May 1950, peat cutters Emil and Viggo Hojgaard stumbled upon a corpse in a peat layer in the Bjældskovdal peat bog, near Silkeborg, Denmark. They were startled: his stubble and woollen cap were still visible, his features were still easily identifiable and a noose around his neck trailed behind him.

Fearing that he was a recent murder victim, the brothers alerted the police. However, to international amazement, it was soon discovered that the body in the bog was an extraordinary 2000 years old and was likely the victim of ritual human sacrifice.

Here’s the story of the Tolland Man, the best-preserved prehistoric body in the world.

It was initially suspected that the body was a missing schoolboy

Though two previous bog bodies had been found on the same site, brothers Emil and Viggo Hojgaard were sceptical that they’d found another, since the body was so well-preserved. At the same time, a schoolboy from Copenhagen had disappeared, so the finders assumed it was likely his body.

Two days later, the police were alerted to the discovery. However, when they realised that there were no signs of recent digging, they referred it to archaeologists at the Silkeborg Museum. The very same day, famed archaeologist Professor P. V. Glob moved the body to the National Museum of Denmark for closer examination.

He was well-preserved because of the bog conditions

The stunningly well-preserved remains of the Tollund Man. Note his stubble, still visible.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Tollund Man’s head was undamaged, and his lungs, heart, liver and skin were incredibly well-preserved. This was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the lack of oxygen underneath the surface and the cold climate of the Nordic countries meant that the body was less able to disintegrate or rot.

Moreover, acid in the peat, which helps to preserve soft tissue, was caused by a moss in the peat called Sphagnum which contains anti-degradation properties. In essence, the body was mummified, rather than broken down, which left the Tollund Man’s hair, skin and nails a leathery brown.

The Tollund Man’s clothing had also been preserved. He wore a pointed cap made of wool and sheepskin that was fastened under his chin by a hide thong. He also had a smooth hide belt around his waist. Other than these, his body was naked. Even his last meal, a porridge or gruel comprised of seeds and grains, was still in his intestines.

He was killed by hanging

Radiocarbon dating indicated that the body – now referred to as the Tollund Man – had died in around 405-380 BC. He was estimated to be around 40 years old and 5′ 3” in height, which was relatively short even for the time.

The remains of Tollund Man shortly after his discovery in 1950.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The rope had left visible furrows in his chin and neck, and an initial autopsy report from 1950 concluded that the man had died from hanging, rather than strangulation.

Scientists later concluded that the Tollund Man had likely been hanged as a sacrifice to the gods. The area he was buried in was frequently used as a place to communicate with many gods in ancient Europe, while studies of his intestines suggest that his death occurred around the seasons of winter or early spring, which were common times of the year for human sacrifice to occur.

Furthermore, his body had been handled with care; his eyes and mouth had been closed, he was carefully laid in the bog and his expression was calm, suggesting that he was not executed as a criminal.

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Some of the body is on display in a museum

With the 2000-year-old body now exposed to the elements, Danish scientists struggled to preserve the body without damaging it. Efforts to preserve it using smoke only resulted in it shrinking and becoming drier. Eventually, scientists were only able to preserve the head, and today, the rest of the body is actually a replica that was reconstructed in 1987.

The Tollund Man is on display at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. However, its reach is international. For instance, Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote a poem titled The Tollund Man which compares ritual sacrifice to those who died during the sectarian violence of The Troubles.

The remains of the Tollund Man on display in a museum. Only the head is original; the rest of his body is a replica.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Denmark, more than 500 bog bodies with remains dating to the Iron Age have been discovered, and research on them offers us a fascinating insight into the lives of our ancient ancestors. However, who the Tollund Man really was will remain a mystery forever.

Lucy Davidson