By also awakened the imagination of artists and

By “Bog Body”, we mean
mummified bodies that are found in ‘Peat Bogs’ in the Northern Regions of
Denmark Germany, Britain, Ireland and other parts of Northern Europe. How and
from where have they come and what are the causes of their being buried or
hidden in the bogs, are some of the questions that have fascinated not just archaeologists
but also awakened the imagination of artists and poets. What is interesting about
these bog bodies is that they have been so well preserved in the peat bogs that
skin, bones and hair have not decomposed for centuries together due to
conditions such as dark, deep, still water and the acidity in the bogs which
reduce the chances of damage and enhances preservation. The Irish bog has been described as a memory that has the ‘ability
to compress time and to render the past visible in the present’. In other words,
these bog bodies that are found by accident while digging for Peat for use as a
fuel, has aroused intense speculation and interpretation.

     The Danish publication of P.V. Glob’s “The Bog People”, in 1965 and its
translation into English in 1969 is an account of Iron Age bodies that are found
in the peat bogs, which has influenced a host of writers like Seamus Heaney, Wijnand
Van der Sanden and Karin Sanders.   

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      It has to be noted that over the
years, the exploitation of peat for fuel and other purposes aided in the
discovery of hundreds of bog mummies and they in turn have found their places again
in museums as pieces of amusement and public interest.  It would be very interesting to note that the earliest accounts of bog mummy discoveries date back
to the early age of 1400s, showing that the discovery hasn’t been a recent
phenomenon, but just that it has gained recognition now.   However, the accounts of bog bodies known to
the readers through words in print, rather than by visual senses, have been
perceived to be known as ‘paper bodies’. The
Dutch Archaeologist Wijnand Van der Sanden, who coined the expression,
describes paper bodies as “Bog bodies
known exclusively from newspaper reports, books or letters”.
For instance,
according to an account of a bog body, dated June 24, 1450, reports that peasants
in Bonsdorp, Germany came across the remains of a man while cutting peat.
After reporting
the remains to a priest, they were advised to “leave the body alone”, as bogs
were believed to be inhabited by elves and were supposed to have lured the man
to his death. The 1600’s and the 1800’s saw more reports of the mummified
bodies. Records before the 1700s make note that “sometimes in mosses are found
human bodies entire and uncorrupted”. In the year 1773 as well, reports said that while cutting peat, a
peasant accidentally cut a human foot with his shovel and after the local judge
was informed a detailed report was written. However, during the late 1800s and
the early 1900s, the peat harvesting industry uncovered many more bog bodies as
well as artifacts which have eventually lead to the advent of ‘Wetland Archaeology’.
It would not be a surprise to know that nearly 2000 bodies have been found in
Europe, 100 of which have been dated to be as early as 14th Century
A.D.  The earliest bog body was of a
female found in Denmark, which is believed to be around 20 yrs of age, dates to
about 10,000 B.C. Moreover, there have also been Neolithic and Bronze age
bodies, some of them in Denmark, Ireland and England and the others in Holland.
Some of the bodies found are also from the Roman period, which are up to 500
A.D. In the recent past, a few more modern bodies have been discovered including
the remains of a World War 2 soldier and a Russian woman who committed suicide,
but these are believed to be rare specimens.  What is necessary here is, in Karin Sanders’
own words, “archaeological imagination”, which involves thinking and acting
upon what remains of the past in finding about these bog mummies.

     As there
are many questions about these bodies that remain unanswered, thousands of bog
mummies have been recovered with peculiar characteristics that have caught the
attention. For instance, the majority of the Bog Bodies appear to have
experienced deliberate and violent deaths. Since their discovery,
archaeologists have been attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle together
and to make sense of these mysterious mummies.

    Some of the characteristic features of these
bog bodies found are that most of them belong to the age group of 16-20 years
of age at time of death and evidences of disarticulated skeletal material have
given rise to the possibility of dismemberment from their community or of
cannibalism.  There have also been
evidence of individuals being disabled and ‘trephination’ or the act of
drilling or scraping holes in the human skull visible in some remains are some
of the evidences of violence caused upon them. Also, bodies with arrows in them,
and bodies found in pairs at a site in Bolkilde a man and a 16 year old boy,
have raised doubt about they being homosexuals, shunned by their
community.  Many grave goods/funerary
items were also recovered with the bodies such as, pottery, axes, beads, even
animal remains, throwing light on the clothes they wore and the things they
used in the past. Some of the bodies discovered with items like amber beads,
wearing capes, clothing, clean and neatly manicured fingernails, as well as
smooth fingerprints indicated that they were not involved in any type of heavy
manual labor and perhaps they belonged to the nobility.

     Some of the
popular bog bodies have been the Tollund Man, who was discovered in central
Jutland, Denmark on May 8, 1950. After close examination it has been concluded
that the body was dated around 200 B.C.-100 B.C., age at death being 40-50
years, one of the best preserved bog bodies, found wearing only a leather belt,
sheepskin cap, and with a leather cord around his neck. Analysis of his stomach
revealed the content of his last meal to be of cereals, weeds, oats, and many
other starches. Another bog body, Grauballe man, who was discovered in Central
Jutland, Denmark at Nebelgard Fen near Grauballe by a group of peat cutters on
April 26, 1952.  Radiocarbon dating from
his liver shows he most likely died near the end of the 3rd century
B.C.
at the age of 20 years.
There were evidences of
malnourishment or calcium deficiencies, and deformed/arthritic vertebrae.
Similarly other bog bodies have been the Windeby girl, believed to be from the
first century A.D. and died at the age of 14, the Yde girl, believed to be
between 43-124 B.C. aged 16, at the time of her death have given rise to a lot
of questions regarding the causes of her death, she being young  and finally the  Lindow man, possibly belonging to the 1st
or the 2nd Century, referred to as the “pete marsh”, by the locals
have been some of the examples that has helped develop modern research in
finding out the exact nature of these bog bodies.  

     Due to the constant research on these bog bodies
and the attempt to find out their origin a variety of interpretations have been
evolved. One of the speculations is that the earliest known settlers, who invaded North Western
Europe were known as the “Battle-axe People”, 4,000 years ago and spoke an Indo-European language and
came from the Central Asian
Steppes. They were the possible ancestors of modern Scandinavians, who were said
to have been tall with fair hair and skin. Before the arrival of the Romans, the people of these
regions (Celtic/Germanic groups) could not read or write. These people farmed
crops, raised animals, and also hunted/fished. The Romans referred to them as “barbarians”, and
arranged them into distinct tribes (Cimbri, Angles, and Jutes).
Evidence suggests that the
Celts interacted with the Germans, and shared similar belief systems/ritual
practices. The same with the Germanic tribe, who often celebrated war victories
and worshiped many gods, but most important was Nerthus, the Earth Mother
goddess of fertility, to whom the bog bodies may have been sacrificed. Tacitus’
work, ‘Germania’ of the 98
A.D., describes about the punishments that were meted out by thieves, sodomites
and cowards, who were “pressed down under a wicker hurdle into the slimy mud of
a bog”. These people are described in Tacitus’ work as ‘corpores infames’. He also talks about the rituals held by the
Sennones and the sacrifice of drowning in the lake to please the God of
fertility Nerthus.  Moreover, the Celts believed
that deep water was a link to the underworld and the reverence to the sun, a universal symbol of
nourishment/growth as well as rebirth, were especially important to
agricultural/farming societies. And
the Celts believed in cycles
of rebirth after death, but many other cultures that mummify remains believe in
a long afterlife, possibly placing bodies in the bog (underworld), and then
preserving them forever. In many societies human sacrifice meant balance. Especially
among agricultural societies “the loss of one for the welfare of all” received
special status. However, all the above have been speculations and possible
evidences, found in old books, pamphlets, accounts of people etc.  Like many mummies found around the world, bog
mummies have become symbols of national pride and identity among many of the
people of north Western Europe.  The
Irish writer and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney has evolved poetry that caters
to the love for his land, despite the intruding past and the troubled present. Many
modern artists have constructed sculptures, sketches, and artistic photographs
of the mummies.

    Today these
mummified bodies are on display at the Silkeborg Museum and in other countries
and have been immortalized in the pages of artists and writers. Seamus Heaney
draws upon these bodies as metaphors for the past and timeless beings, which
are ‘reborn as we discover them’.

 

    THE TOLLUND MAN: AN INTERPRETATION

In
the light of the bog mummy discoveries in Ireland and in other parts of North
Western Europe, the bog bodies have come to represent the remote past that
intrudes into the present. With an untold past and marks of violence on their
bodies, they have come to arouse the artistic imagination of archaeologists and
creative thinkers in trying to reconstruct the past, through not just
scientific methods but also by artistic or aesthetic means. With the
publication of P.V. Glob’s The Bog People,
in 1969, it has set the foundation for budding writers and researchers on these
strange specimens of the past. Karin Sanders, an academic, in her “Bodies in the Bog and the archaeological
Imagination”, says that these bodies tend to be “estranged from us, even as they mirror us”.

    
Seamus Heaney, an Irish writer and a Nobel Laureate, composed poems on
the nature of these bodies contrasting the past and the present with vivid
images of his poetry, making pun on words, at a very personal level and the
oneness he feels with his land, which has also been a home to many of the
discovered bog bodies. Claimed as a Nature’s poet, in the most literal sense,
in that, he writes about what actually is real and present. His poetry evokes
sensations of the “Uncanny”, as Karin Sanders in her ” Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination”, quotes
Gordon Beam who says that, “The absence
of what ought to be present is eerie. The presence of what ought to be absent
is uncanny”. Thus, exploring the
strange presence of the bog bodies, he mentally enters into a timeless zone,
wherein he tries to make sense of the present situation in Ireland that has
become replete with violence in the recent past. As in the poem “The Tollund
Man”, Heaney gives a vivid picture of this imagery. He once said, “When I wrote this poem, I had
a completely new sensation, one of fear. It was a vow to go on pilgrimage and I
felt as it came to me—and again it came quickly—that unless I was deeply in
earnest about what I was saying, I was simply invoking dangers for myself. It
is called The Tollund Man.”

     The poem begins on a note of journey that
is timeless and ends in the present giving a contrast between the two. He says,
“Someday I will go to Aarhus, to see his
peat-brown head, the mild pods of his eye lids, the pointed skin cap…In the
flat country nearby, where they dug him out, his last gruel of winter seeds,
caked in his stomach”. And in the last lines where he says, “Out here in
Jutland, in the old man killing parishes, I will feel lost, unhappy and at
home”. The entire poem is all
about the play of words of what happened and what is happening. Words and
phrases like, ” peat boiled head”, ” bridegroom to the goddess”, “dark juices
working”, are instances where words have a the effect of an action. These
convey the manner in which the Tollund Man had been found in the peat, by being
a victim to the Goddess of fertility. Although the meaning isn’t clear
in the first read, the truth gradually unfolds, with the similes and metaphors
powerfully portrayed. Moreover, in the second section of the poem, the poet
suddenly shifts from his description of the bog body that “sleeps”, to a
similar situation where labourers were brutally killed. This lack of hint of
this shift shows the timeless travel of the poet, in his mind, forming
contrasts of the peaceful bog body with that of the violent deaths. The lines go
thus:

“I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines. ”

 

Here, the Tollund Man stands as a metaphor for not
just the past, but as a timeless universal being, ‘killed by circumstances and
discovered as a martyr’. On the other hand, there are connections between these
lines-connections with the bog bodies in Jutland and the four labourers who
were dragged along the railway line and ultimately killed. In these two,
violence is the common element. This also reveals a certain ritualistic pattern
in both the cases, which the poet identifies as universal. In the ensuing and
in the last lines of the poem, he laments about his trip to the Museum where
the popular bog bodies, Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard are on the display.
Although the poet knows no language they speak in Jutland, he feels “unhappy
and at home”, due to the ‘temporality of life and the immortality of the
bodies’. Though they are dead and from another actuality, they are reborn to us
in our discoveries of them and the manner of their deaths, which is ‘unnatural’
and finally by the way we reconstruct their whole past with the little clues
that these mystified bodies reveal. Here, the “Nature poet”, that Heaney is, is
awakened by depicting the reality by way of creating images in his poetry. 

          

         The
bog bodies on the other hand, can also be deemed “uncanny”, due to the manner
in which they are found. Karin Sanders, in her book, says, “…the precarious and often treacherous vacillation between being a
human and an inanimate object. That is bog bodies in multiple ways negotiate
the liminality that comes with   having
to travel between their material reality as archaeological artifacts (mummies)
and the temporality that comes with their humanness. In this sense bog bodies
become a kind of “archaeological uncanny””.  She also goes on to argue that due to the
contradictory nature of these bog bodies, as being, wet and dry, firm and
malleable, mysterious and alluring, they are “frozen in time”, which makes them
“deeply uncanny” creatures.

    
The distinctive feature of bog mummies are that they come with no
identity, unlike other Egyptian mummies, whose names are written on the
epitaphs, giving a brief account of their life and death. But bog bodies are
found out of a sudden and thus are uncanny. As Glob in his “The Bog People”, famously says, “We are in face-to-face with our ancestors”. Seamus Heaney
dramatizes the rituals in his poems, when victims were sacrificed and it is
this dramatization that brings to life ‘history in the form of the material’.

    

     Finally one can say that Seamus Heaney is
also a personal poet. The tone of his poems is of obsession, of   something that he himself has seen and gone
through. Living in the Bog regions, he has learnt to ‘live with nature’, and to
dwell on the metaphysical reality beyond which he has been able to imbibe in
his poetry with the zeal of a poet and with an eye of a detective. He has what
Karin Sanders calls “poetics of depth”, to dig deeper and deeper into history,
to find out its hidden meanings and to cherish the function of poetry as
poetry.