When we think of mummies, our imaginations tend to jump immediately to ancient Egypt, conjuring to mind images of bandage-wrapped corpses coming back to life, dragging their feet as they pursue human victims or reincarnation—or both. Our images of mummies—informed by the tropes of Hollywood—include the likes of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, and, more recently, Arnold Vosloo and Sofia Boutella beneath those bandages.
Related: The Mummy Museum of Guanajuato
Those early mummy movies were fueled by an Egyptomania that gripped much of the English-speaking world surrounding—among other things—the (re)discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. But some of the oldest mummies in the world actually predate King Tut by centuries. And they come not from Egypt, but from the peat bogs of Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and beyond.
In fact, hundreds of these “bog bodies” have been discovered, often by people who were excavating peat to make their living, rather than by archaeologists. Buried in the naturally-occurring peat bogs of the northern climes, these cadavers are surprisingly well-preserved—so much so that, in some of the most famous examples, you can still make out everything from facial features to the stubble of a 5 o’clock shadow.
Unlike their ancient Egyptian counterparts, these mummies were not preserved through complicated embalming procedures. Egyptian mummies typically had their internal organs removed and their bodies prepared through a complex process that preserved them through the ages. Among the bog bodies of northern Europe, nature took care of all that.
The best-preserved among their number were found in raised bogs where sphagnum moss had formed a dome that kept the bogland beneath in a kind of closed system, containing almost no oxygen but plenty of acid. This had the effect of tanning the flesh, essentially turning it to leather, while cool weather and lack of drainage slowed decay and the moss itself prevented the formation of the bacteria that would otherwise have eaten away at the body while also leaching out the calcium of the bones, leading bog bodies to often look, well, squished.
So, who were these mysterious individuals and how did they come to find their way into the bogs? With more than one hundred bog bodies accounted for, mainly throughout northern Europe, the answer to that question naturally varies, but many have at least a few things in common. Most bog bodies date from between 500 BCE and 100 CE, hailing from the Bronze or Iron Age. And many of them didn’t die of natural causes. They were killed—often violently—and then placed in the bog.
That violence is one of the enduring mysteries that surround these well-preserved emissaries from ancient times. In fact, several of the bodies show signs of what some have dubbed “overkilling”—which is to say that the bodies display indications of multiple wounds, any one of which could have proven fatal. Take, for instance, the body known as Yde Girl, found in the Netherlands in 1897, which appears to have been both stabbed in the neck and strangled with a woolen cord.
Despite the violence of their deaths, many of the bog bodies nevertheless show no defensive wounds, leading some scholars to hypothesize that they might have been voluntary victims of human sacrifice, or that they may have been killed while unconscious. This, combined with their uncanny preservation, has led to theories that their placement in the bog may have served a ceremonial purpose, similar to the mummification practiced in ancient Egypt. Perhaps these bodies were meant to last through the ages, transformed into a kind of psychopomp connecting this world to the other side.
Bog Bodies Uncovered
If you're anything like us, you're now going to want to learn everything you can about bog bodies. With a foreword by Val McDermid, Bog Bodies Uncovered by Miranda Aldhouse-Green takes a deep dive into this grisly phenomenon. This book updates an earlier version first published in 1969 to include details on archaeological discover as well as the incorporation of modern crime scene techniques. These cases may be cold, but the book explores the extraordinary information the bog bodies reveal about humanity's prehistoric past.
Lending at least some credence to the theory that these bodies were placed in bogs specifically to preserve them is the existence of another oddity: bog butter. Similar to the butter that we’re used to finding on our breakfast table today, bog butter has been found in the same sorts of bogs that have yielded these bodies, and is, in some cases, still edible, despite being more than a thousand years old.
While some scholars have theorized that the butter may have been interred in the bog as an offering to gods or spirits, others suggest that the people who put it there may have simply been setting it aside for later, much as we put leftovers in the fridge. If that was the case, they might also have known that the bogs would have a similar effect on a human body.
It’s impossible to ever know the entire story of the lives of these individuals we have found, so strangely preserved, so many years later, but scientists are learning all they can by attempting to extract DNA, studying hair and tissue samples, and much more. In the meantime, these bog bodies have fired the imaginations of those who have encountered—or simply read about—them.
Bog bodies don’t factor into nearly as many movies as their Egyptian counterparts—at least, not yet—but there have been more than a few stories and poems inspired by these visitors from the distant past. Among the most famous examples are the “Bog Poems” of Seamus Heaney, who imagined the lives of these individuals, and the fate that must have befallen them to lead them to their preserved state.
Nor are such speculations limited to what became of the bog bodies before they were found. The literature (and especially cinema) of horror has done much with Egyptian mummies, while bog bodies are less common subjects—but not entirely unheard-of. Renowned contemporary weird fiction author John Langan’s story “On Skua Island” is just one example of a horror tale featuring a bog mummy.
And while bog bodies have mostly been found in northern Europe, they aren’t limited to there, either. The combination of environmental factors present in the bogs of northern Europe make them singularly conducive to well-preserved bog bodies, but similar remains have also been found in other parts of the world, including Florida, where hundreds of skeletons dating back as much as 8,000 years have been discovered in peat. While the skin and organs of these bodies were not intact, as was the case in the bog bodies of Europe, nearly 100 of them still contained well-preserved brains.