A few years ago I was unfortunate enough to see the ‘Lindow Man’ exhbition at Manchester museum… I say unfortunate because it was a truly appalling and disrespectful exhibition whereby the main part, IE Lindow Man himself, was placed in a dark corner and overlooked in favour of presenting some relatively spartan information on some of the people who found him back in the 1980’s. Add to this the fact that the whole exhibition space looked unfinished and shoddy and you had a major disappointment on your hands. To be fair Lindow Man isn’t the best looking bog body in the world and the idea behind the exhibition was a solid one but I still don’t think it was right to display his remains in the way that they did. I know the British Museum do usually keep him on his own in a corner but in my honest opinion he’s still displayed in a much more respectful way than the exhibition at Manchester displayed him.
And it’s a real shame because Bog Bodies are a very interesting topic, particularly those bog bodies of Northern Europe that date from the Iron Age, for instance Lindow Man himself. Many of these bodies show signs of suffering an overly violent and probably humiliating death. Lindow Man for instance was hung, stabbed and smacked across the back of the head whilst Tollund Man was found with the very rope they used to hang him still around his neck. Others such as Old Croghan Man were found to have been decapitated and chopped in two whilst one of the Weerdinge men had his stomach cut open so that his intestines spilled out. The clear indication is that the bog bodies were either executed or murdered. I’m inclined to believe the former as that is the more plausible idea, though it’s certainly possible that some of the bodies were murder victims.
Some people have argued that they were perhaps ‘human sacrifices’ but personally I think this is a gross miscalculation and highly unlikely in the extreme. The idea of ‘human sacrifice’ belongs more to the realms of fantasy than reality and it’s quite a rare thing to find happen. It is more likely that the bog bodies were criminals and they were executed and thrown into the bog as a form of punishment. There is even some written evidence for this in the form of Tacitus who (in ‘Germania’) comments on the practice and more or less confirms that at least some of the bodies were executed criminals. The enigma is, therefore, why did they do this? It is something that is not really known but I have my own theory.
By my reckoning the Iron Age peoples would have known that the peat bogs preserved the dead and therefore that the intent with casting these bodies into the bogs was to do just that… It was to preserve them. The idea of purpose preserving bodies is not unusual, the most famous occurrence is with mummification in Ancient Egypt where bodies were preserved in order to ensure their passage to the afterlife. However, in Egypt the preserved were not criminals. They were everyday citizens and pharaohs etc. In Northern Europe during the Iron Age everyday citizens were not usually preserved. There are numerous forms of Iron Age burial but it’s been suggested that perhaps excarnation, IE: the leaving of a body in the open so that it is purposefully removed of flesh and bones by animals and other natural means, was the most common form of burial in the Iron Age. I think therefore, if the widespread practice of excarnation is to be believed, that it’s highly plausible that Iron Age peoples saw the decaying of the body as the process of the person’s soul passing from this world to some other spiritual world. When the body had fully decayed down to the skeleton that meant that the person’s soul was then in the spirit world. This leads me to think that the bog bodies are a kind of mirror to the mummies of Egypt. The Iron Age bodies were preserved not to ensure passage to the afterlife but rather to prevent it. The Iron Age people could have seen the preserving of a body as a way of denying that person passage to the afterlife or spiritual world, possibly even as a part of the criminals punishment. Perhaps it was even seen as something of a humiliation and it could even be argued that it was also some sort of a deterrent to other criminals. To me this does seem to be a likely possibility.
But even if it is true that these people were criminals and the act of their execution and burial was a means of humiliation and a way of preventing passage to the afterlife does that give us the right to display their remains in a shoddy and disrespectful way as happened with Lindow Man at the Manchester exhibition? I don’t think so.