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Unearthing the living dead

Bog bodies are an archaeologist’s dream come true. They can bring history alive more than any old document. But now, exploitation of the preservative peat in which they are found stands to rob us of this crucial link, writes Michael Pitts

Given that he was an archaeologist, you wouldn’t think he’d have needed a drink. I mean, that’s what archaeologists do. Find bodies. They dig holes in the ground, sieve dirt, collect all sorts of rubbish, and find human bodies. But on Thursday, August 2 1984, Rick Turner, county archaeologist for Cheshire, sat in the nearest pub he could find and contemplated a large whisky.

It was just a flap of skin hanging out of the peat. The colour of espresso coffee, but unmistakably human skin: you could see the pores. It was soft and wrinkled. The day before, one of the workers employed in cutting the peat (used in domestic gardens) had thrown what looked like a piece of wood on to the ground. As the muck bounced off it, the wood was revealed to be the lower part of a human leg with a foot attached.

Ken Harewood, manager of the peat works, called the police. Someone tipped off a local journalist at the Wilmslow World. She called the county archaeologist, who was out searching in the bog the next morning.

What Turner was to unearth at the site following the discovery of that human leg would become known as Lindow Man, alias Pete Marsh, the almost complete remains of someone estimated to have died shortly after the birth of Christ. The find would nudge the pattern of Turner’s life. His name would be associated permanently with what fast became one of the best-known archaeological finds in Britain.

Today, he still feels deep affection for the man whose remains he saved then. At first, on that fateful day, he found just a flap of skin surrounded by peat, but it soon became obvious to Turner that he had stumbled on a rare and important find. Indeed, that was part of his problem. Archaeologists in Britain had never before had to deal with an ancient bog body. There was no sophisticated recovery and conservation system that could just slip into gear.

But that alone was not what had led Turner to the pub. Harewood had urgently reported his finding of the human leg to the police for one very good reason. These were not the first human remains to have been found in this Cheshire bog. The year before, on May 13 1983, Andy Mould and Stephen Dooley were facing each other across the conveyor belt that carried debris from the peat works, when a round, soft object bounced up. Perhaps, they joked, it was a dinosaur egg. They took it to Harewood, who thought it might be a squashed football. Curiosity aroused, they hosed it down in the yard. It was then they could see that the ball had an eye and hair; it was the top part of a head, with stuff that looked like brains dribbling out. One of the most bizarre episodes in British archaeology had begun.

Harewood took the head to the Macclesfield police, who happened, at that time, to be searching for the wife of Peter Reyn-Bardt, Malika Maria de Fernandez, who had disappeared 23 years before. Reyn-Bardt was already well known to the police and was currently serving a jail sentence. He had recently boasted to two cell-mates how he had murdered, dismembered and burnt his wife, and buried what was left at the bottom of his garden. His garden overlooked Lindow Moss, where the peat works are.

When the Home Office forensic laboratory reported that the skullcap came from a recently deceased 30- to 50-year-old European female, the police were convinced they had their man. They had already dug over most of the ground behind Reyn-Bardt’s bungalow, but found nothing. Reyn-Bardt had denied all accusations. But now, the police informed him, they had his wife’s head. Reyn-Bardt confessed, and in December 1983 was convicted of De Fernandez’s murder at Chester Crown Court.

However, the suspect’s confession became the only piece of evidence in this case. The police had dug more ground in Reyn-Bardt’s garden, but nothing further turned up. Suspicious of the skull itself, Detective Inspector George Abbott sent it to Oxford for radio-carbon dating. The report came back a few months later – after Reyn-Bardt’s confession, but before the trial in 1983 – that the head was Roman.

By the following August, Reyn-Bardt was serving a sentence for his wife’s murder but, despite exhaustive searches, the police had still failed to find the parts of her body he had claimed to have buried. So, when Turner found “his body” in Lindow Moss, they hoped that at last they had their missing evidence. Yet, if the Lindow body turned out to be not modern but prehistoric, it was important for different reasons.

Turner found the body on Thursday, August 2. He agreed that it should be removed the following Monday under police supervision. That gave him the weekend to organise what would become the most significant archaeological dig of his career. He had no archaeological colleagues at work and there was no local museum service. So he had to ring his mates for help. This would not be the first – or last – time a major archaeological find in Britain became dependent on the willingness of archaeologists to drop everything for the sake of a fellow professional.

Come Monday morning, he had six diggers and 23 onlookers, from peat-company representatives to forensic scientists. The van carrying the palaeobotanists he had persuaded to come to Lindow had broken down, and didn’t arrive for another three hours.

In the end, after recording the site in detail, he decided to lift the entire block of peat containing the body so that it could be excavated at leisure under laboratory conditions. Lindow Man began the journey on a peat-works light railway, and by 8pm on Monday was safely in the morgue at Macclesfield hospital.

Turner arrived at the morgue early on Tuesday morning. By the time police and pathologists showed up, the Lindow body, by now humorously dubbed “Pete Marsh”, was well protected inside a plywood box filled with polyurethane foam. While the botanists at the excavation had convinced Turner that the body was 2 000 years old, the police were quite naturally keen to believe it was little more than 20.

Turner had to prove that it really was ancient. One of the pathologists decided to X-ray the body (it was the need to fill in the form that resulted in the name Pete Marsh). The result showed a set of good teeth without a single filling. Turner felt like saying, “See?” But the police needed more convincing.

That came in the person of Ian Stead, a no-nonsense Yorkshireman from the British Museum. “It was Ian Stead’s arrival that changed things,” remembers Turner. “He blasted into the mortuary in his ex-Ministry of Works duffel coat, and lent very considerable gravitas to the proceedings.” The coroner agreed to allow radio-carbon dating to determine the body’s future. In 10 days, they got a preliminary result from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Lindow Man, aka Pete Marsh, was at least 1 000 years old. He was on his way to London.

More than 50 scientific specialists contributed to the British Museum’s first substantial report on Lindow Man. A selection of participants gives a flavour of the project. While Pete Marsh excited the British press and television (more than 10-million viewers watched the first of two BBC programmes), he gripped academics too. He was at the centre of the type of multi-disciplinary project that has come to characterise the best of modern archaeology.

Many things came of this work. A concentration of minerals on his skin suggested he had been painted green or blue, and further research indicated that this might have been what Julius Caesar was referring to in a famous passage about painted Britons – not woad, but mineral paint.

The contents of his gut were well preserved. His last meal consisted of chapati-like bread made from two varieties of wheat and barley. Hi-tech electron spin resonance of the wheat chaff indicated it had been heated briefly to 200C to 250C – too hot for an oven, but achievable on a griddle. He was a healthy (albeit suffering a little from worms and minor arthritis), well-built man, aged 25, with good teeth and fingernails. His short beard and moustache had been trimmed with scissors (a puzzle for the archaeologists, who had said there were no scissors in Roman Britain). He was naked except for a fox fur armband worn just above his right elbow.

And his mode of death was, to say the least, curious. The first thing to be noticed as the peat was picked away from the wrinkled, squashed corpse was a hole in the top of his head. And when his chin was gingerly lifted away from his chest, a neat cut in his throat was revealed. The ghost of Agatha Christie could be felt in the East End workshop of the British Museum.

In his report, Iain West of the department of forensic medicine at Guy’s hospital, London, pointed to many injuries which could have been fatal. He had been hit on the head three times. One blow was strong enough to send splinters of skull deep into the brain. A chip off a tooth is probably to be accounted for by the sudden clamping of his jaw as he was struck. He had survived this attack long enough for the wound margins to swell, but following immediate loss of consciousness, he would certainly have died after a few hours. He also received a heavy blow in the centre of his back, breaking a rib.

This was only the beginning. Around his neck was a string of animal sinew tied in a tight noose. The ends were cut short, however, and it looked like a necklace. His body told a different story. The ligature had left a deep mark in his skin, which could not be explained by the swelling of the corpse after death. The facial skin was too well preserved, says West in his report, for any putrefaction of this kind to have occurred. Rather, twists in the sinew are typical of changes caused by a stick being inserted and twisted until the neck had broken, or the airway closed. This could account for two broken neck vertebrae: these would have resulted in instant death.

Then there was the wound to his neck. Just above the ligature was a small, clean cut through the skin and underlying tissues. “The position of this cut,” says West, “is entirely in keeping with the intention to sever the jugular vein.” Twisting of the garotte below the wound would accentuate bleeding. If all else failed, he might well have bled to death.

In 1984, Lindow Man was thought to be the first bog body found in Britain. But it was well known that there were many such remains across the Channel, particularly in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. The new British find inspired archaeologists to take a fresh look at these remarkable discoveries, of which nearly 2 000 have now been catalogued. Who were all these people? How did they get into the bogs, and why are they preserved so well? Some of the finds are quite astonishing.

Take the man from Emmer-Erfscheidenveen, found in Holland in 1938 and radio-carbon dated to more than 3 000 years old. His clothes provide a unique insight into bronze-age European dress. First, he was wrapped in an undergarment of coarsely woven wool with an embroidered hem that hung to his knees. Over this he wore a skin cape. On his head he had a sheepskin cap, and deerskin shoes covered his feet. Other items of clothing, sometimes just isolated finds without any wearer, include everything from skirts and leggings to hairnets and necklaces. An early medieval tunic from Bernuthsfeld, Germany, consists of 43 different pieces of fabric stitched together.

Curiously, though, many bog bodies are naked. Such would include two men from Weerdinge, Holland, found lying together on their backs, buried around 2 000 years ago. When they were recovered in 1904, the excavators laid them on top of each other, rolled them up and stuffed them into a box. How could they have done this to human corpses?

Not the least surprising element in the weird world of bog bodies is the fact that while skin, hair, nails and, quite frequently, internal organs, can be exceptionally well preserved, bones, if they survive at all, are soft and pliable. It is the leathery, tanned skin that keeps things together. A good bog body is literally a bag of bones and flesh.

It used to be thought that the key to preservation was peat bog water. The natural acidity dissolves the minerals in bones, leaving only the soft tissues. With no oxygen, however, corrupting bacteria cannot act. Recent research has revealed another and more important factor, the ubiquitous peat-building Sphagnum moss. This plant releases a chemical called sphagnan, which both immobilises bacteria and tans the bodies.

That bog moss has preservative properties has been known for centuries by people who used it as a wound dressing. It is the same property that makes the moss attractive to garden centres. Insects leave the peat alone, it doesn’t rot, and, mixed with farmyard manure, it even neutralises the smell.

The symbolism of this special property of the moss is not lost on Turner. The purifying, medicinal bogs preserve bodies as if they might be uncorrupted medieval saints, whose remains were said not to decay. Turner even suggests that the legend of St Edmund, who died tied to a tree in a hail of arrows proclaiming his love of Christ, grew around the discovery of what would be Europe’s first recorded bog body. In the story, Edmund’s head, which had been decapitated, is miraculously reunited with his torso. The exhumed body was still supple and undecayed 300 years after his death in AD869.

There is an aptness in the idea of a dark, watery spirituality for northern Europe. Perhaps here, up north, it is appropriate that the ancestral gods and saints – or evidence of rituals associated with them – should be found in bogs.

The Danish archaeologist PV Glob, in a popular book first published in English in 1969 as The Bog People, put flesh, as it were, on this notion of a bog religion. He noticed that while bog bodies ranged from several thousands of years old to almost modern, many seemed to originate from just a few centuries either side of the birth of Christ.

Referring to classical texts such as Pablius Tacitus’s Germania (AD98), he noted that the Celts of northern Europe were said to drown deserters, cowards and homosexuals in swamps. To them, human sacrifice was a common punishment. Many of the best preserved bog bodies, Glob surmised, were spring sacrifices of such people to the Mother Goddess.

Laid gently on a bed of red-brown peat in his case in the Silkeborg Museum, Denmark, Tollund Man is probably the best-known bog body in Europe. The whims of preservation give a strange look to his corpse. Perfectly preserved feet seem to swell grossly at the end of fleshless legs; bony hands give his arms a bird-like appearance. A few days’ growth stubbles his chin and upper lip. His whole being is kind, at peace with the world. And then you notice the rope.

Tollund Man was hanged (or, some say, hanged himself) from a finely plaited leather cord. For most of the bog bodies, it’s impossible to tell the cause of death. But in around 20 cases, almost all dating from Glob’s proposed era of human sacrifice, there are unequivocal signs of force. And many of these show the excesses seen in Lindow Man. Dutch archaeologist Wijnand van der Sanden, who has made a thorough study of the bog bodies on the Continent, describes this phenomenon as “overkill”.

“These are not cases of efficient, humane termination of life,” says Van der Sanden, “but of inordinate and unnecessary violence.”

There is, for example, the 16-year-old Yde Girl (Holland), whose head was partly shaven, and who was stabbed and strangled. Borremose Woman (Denmark) was dead (possibly from being scalped) when her face was smashed. Daetgen Man (Germany) was beaten, stabbed and beheaded. There is another example from Britain, which, though known of since 1958, only came to archaeologists’ attention after the Lindow discoveries. A Roman man in his mid-20s had been hit on the skull, strangled and decapitated. His head was found in Worsley Moss, Lancashire.

It is at this point in the story that a fog of mystery and argument descends. It is a state brilliantly captured in Philip Martin’s evocative new documentary film, Overkill. Most scientists studying these finds agree that something deliberate and organised was going on.

Mike Parker Pearson, a Sheffield archaeologist who has spent his career thinking about death, finds the evidence for this compelling, especially when seen in the context of both the classical and historic literature, and the broader evidence of land archaeology.

While to many Glob’s argument for spring killings and a Mother Goddess now seems fanciful, Parker Pearson is happy with the principle of sacrifice. “All the evidence,” he says, “points to human sacrifice or the public execution of war captives or social outcasts.”

He notes that many bodies seem to belong to people of relatively high status. Several have physical deformities, such as an extra thumb or limbs of unequal length. There are, however, some strong dissenting voices.

The case for ritual sacrifice was hardly strengthened by a strange novel, masquerading as non-fiction, by two archaeologists who claimed to be able to identify Lindow Man as a Druid prince, and even to know his name and the date of his death. “I was really hurt by this nonsense,” says Turner. “I like to protect him, and this exploitation of Lindow Man just made me angry.”

Stephen Briggs, an archaeologist based in Aberystwyth, Wales, believes that some of his own colleagues have been carried away with a grand vision that seeks to justify old myths with new science. He prefers to see the deaths as accidental.

Robert Connolly would be the first to agree. A pathologist who advised the Macclesfield police over Lindow, he is seen in Overkill questioning what archaeologists said about Lindow Man and the earlier Lindow skull find. At the time of discovery, he went on record with his interpretation that the body represented “the brutal clubbing of a man wearing a necklace”. Some translate this to mean it was a homosexual killing.

Today, Connolly still believes the stray skull to be that of Malika de Fernandez. Overkill concludes with Peter Vanezis, a forensic pathologist at Glasgow University, hovering over photos of the Lindow skull and of De Fernandez’s face. On the evidence of these photographs, Vanezis comments that they could be the same person.

Archaeologists specialising in the remains of human bone, meanwhile, have decided that the skull may well be male. A third body was found at Lindow in 1987. Although this man had been through the shredder that breaks up peat debris, almost all his body was recovered – except for his head. The simplest explanation, say the archaeologists, is that he was decapitated, and that his head is the one found in 1983 only a short distance from the body.

The sad irony is that, as arguments rage, opportunities to resolve the issues with new finds and modern analyses are fading rapidly. Industrial peat quarrying has all but removed the bogs. With the loss of unique environments and ecosystems goes the loss of the archaeology, and of the bogs as repositories of myth and mystery.

As more people realise how special these places were to our ancestors, an appreciation of this attraction will increasingly have to depend on books and museums. Unless British governmental departments can move rapidly to rein in the exploitation, the bogs themselves will be but part of the myth. Who then the bog murderers?

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