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The brutality of prehistoric life revealed by bodies from Europe's swamps

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In 1984, a peat cutter discovered human remains in a bog in Cheshire, England. They belonged to a man who died a brutal death some 2,100 years ago before being placed in the swamp – examination of his well-preserved mummy revealed blows to the head, a possible stab wound and a broken neck. Sprained tendon found still wrapped around the neck may also have been a garrote.

Now in the British Museum in London, the Lindow Man remains are perhaps the best known of Europe’s estimated 2,000 “bog bodies”. These are mummies and skeletons that have been found mired in the peat and wetlands of Ireland, UK, Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.

The bodies – often exquisitely preserved by the cold, acidic conditions of the swamps and organic compounds – provide a thrilling snapshot of the past. Archaeologists study their skin, bones, clothing, belongings, and sometimes even your last meal. Now researchers have carried out the first comprehensive survey of bog bodies – a burial tradition they believe spanned 7,000 years – to build a more complete picture of the phenomenon.

These are the petrified remains of Lindow Man in the British Museum.

“We shouldn’t just focus on a few spectacular discoveries. Sometimes it’s really important as archaeologists to zoom out,” said Roy van Beek, assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and co-author of the study.

“Sometimes you have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions or jump to conclusions just based on a very limited number of sites.”

Van Beek and his colleagues collected data from 1,000 bog bodies found in 266 different locations, uncovering intriguing findings published this week in the journal Antiquity.

While swamps can be treacherous places where it’s easy to get lost, meaning some bodies in the swamps are likely to be people who died accidentally, the team found that many deaths were deliberate – and brutal, with the corpses dumped or placed in swamps. after dead. .

“In many cases, it is no coincidence that these people ended up in these swamps. Violence is often something that comes into play,” said van Beek.

The team was able to establish the cause of death for 57 people, and in 45 cases there was violence. The greatest number of violent deaths occurred in two periods: from 5200 BC to 2800 BC and from 1000 BC to 1100 AD

Porsmose Man met a violent death.  Bone arrowheads were found embedded in her skull and sternum.

Bone arrowheads were found embedded in the skull and sternum of Porsmose Man, a marsh body found in Denmark. Likewise, Tollund Man, also found in a Danish peat bog, was hanged. Some historians believe he may have been a human sacrifice.

“People have always been inclined to interpret most of them as ritual sacrifices – that people were deliberately killed as offerings to higher powers,” explained van Beek.

Although ritual violence and human sacrifice did occur, van Beek said there were likely many other explanations for how the bodies ended up in the swamps.

“They could have been stolen and killed in some kind of conflict. Another category could have been individuals who crossed some sort of social boundary – perhaps they were criminals who were executed or people who committed suicide or adultery.”

The Neolithic Raspberry Girl, or Hallonflickan, got its name because many raspberry seeds were found near her stomach – evidence of her last meal.

The study divided swamp bodies into three categories: swamp mummies, the most famous finds excavated with skin, soft tissue and hair intact; swamp skeletons, complete bodies, but only bones preserved; and partial remains of mummies or marsh skeletons.

Swamp mummies are typically found in elevated swamps – discrete patches of damp earth several meters above the surrounding area, rather than swamps that cover large areas. Organic components in plants such as Sphagnum moss, found in naturally acidic peat bogs, can preserve human tissue. In more alkaline wetlands, such as swamps, only the bone tends to survive.

“The survival of human tissue also depends on how quickly a body is immersed in water, the temperature and time of year, and the presence of insects and internal microorganisms,” says the study.

Examinations of the three swamp body types revealed that burying bodies in swamps was a deeply rooted tradition that lasted thousands of years. The phenomenon appears to have originated in southern Scandinavia around 7,000 years ago and gradually spread across northern Europe.

More recent discoveries, from Ireland and Scotland, show that the tradition continued into medieval and early modern times. The Iron Age and Roman era, from 1200 BC to about AD 500, were generally perceived as marking the peak of the bog body phenomenon.

Although most sites featured just one corpse, it was not uncommon to find hot spots where the remains of several people were discovered, sometimes accompanied by valuable objects. One exceptional site is Alken Enge near Skanderborg, Denmark, which includes more than 380 individuals killed in violent conflicts and deposited in swamps along with weapons nearly 2,000 years ago.

“These marshes and swamps are generally known for their natural qualities … and high biodiversity. They are places where special plants live, animals (live) and they are very important carbon stores that protect against climate change”, said van Beek.

“But if you look at this type of research, we could say that they are also extremely valuable cultural archives, which provide high-quality evidence about human behavior for millennia.”