Who Were the Ancient Bog Mummies?


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. 

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Excitingly, preliminary results of the analysis, still unpublished, mirror the findings for Huldremose Woman—Haraldskær Woman had lived elsewhere before her death.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.

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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?'" 

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."