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The Magic of Moss
Peat Bogs and the Making of Lindow Man
There is still magic in the world. Knowing the scientific reason why a phenomenon happens doesn’t make it any less amazing. This is particularly true when we enter unstable, watery landscapes like the Lindow Moss [fig. 1], just south of Manchester, and come face to face with bog bodies.
Mosses—also known as bogs or peatlands—are found throughout northern Europe including Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Poland.1 In this region, bogs are typically part of the Holocene landscape; they were formed after the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago with many expanding during a wetter period 5,000 years ago.2 Lindow Moss fits this profile.3
Humans have long held a fascination with watery landscapes such as bogs, fens, and marshes. These are places that defy categorization. They are neither solely land, nor solely water. They are not suitable for agriculture, but they can be a source of fish, edible plants, and bulrushes. Watery landscapes can act as a natural boundary, protecting a settlement from outsiders, but they can also be a dangerous barrier to travel.
And, throughout much of history, watery landscapes were both of this world and the next, a porous boundary between humans and the supernatural.
Mysterious Bog Bodies
Bog bodies—human remains found preserved under layers of peat moss—therefore also straddle the line between the here and the beyond. This is not simply because they were once living and are no longer. No. Bog bodies are something different than corpses. As Seamus Heaney said at the opening of a museum exhibition on bog bodies: “When a corpse becomes a bog body, the personal identity drops away; the bog body does not proclaim ‘I am I’; instead it says something like ‘I am it’ or ‘I am you.’”4 A bog body becomes a portal to an ancient world we can hardly know.
Since the late Middle Ages, we have records of “uncorrupted” bodies being unearthed from bogs in Britain and Ireland. Some of these earliest bodies were discovered by laborers digging foundations or cutting peat turf to burn as fuel. We can only imagine the shock of these workers at the moment when their spades turned back a thick layer of peat and a face stared up at them from the dark humus.
To the medieval and early modern mind, an “uncorrupted” body—one that did not decay in the usual way—could be a sign of saintliness, but they were more likely to believe the bog body one of the “unruly dead,” a revenant whose unfinished business could lead them to cause trouble for the living [fig. 2]. We have no accurate count of the number of bodies discovered and quickly reinterred by laborers fearful of either the unruly dead or of being accused of a murder they did not commit.5
The record of modern bog bodies—those discovered, dissected, and catalogued since the nineteenth century—is more scientific, but the questions asked of these bodies are no less unearthly. Nineteenth century archeologists believed their national origins were embodied in these human remains; the body of a woman found in Denmark in 1835 was erroneously hailed by the newly independent country as a Viking queen and placed on display in a church to celebrate Denmark’s national history [fig. 3].6
Macabre Bog Bodies
With the rise of forensic science in the 1950s, contemporary fascination with bog bodies turned to the how and why of their deaths.7 Bodies such as Lindow Man became objects of macabre speculation. Discovered in Lindow Moss in 1984 on the conveyor belt of a mechanical peat cutter, the initial excavation of Lindow Man’s remains were overseen by the police who thought he might be the victim of a much more recent murder.8
Carbon dating quickly revealed the antiquity of the remains—he is now believed to have lived and died in the first century AD9—but the story of Lindow Man continued to be told in popular and archaeological publications with all the grisly gusto of a true crime podcast. Writing in Anthropology Today, R.C. Connolly declared that the injuries to Lindow Man’s body “could not have been self-inflicted by even the wildest of masochists” and then went on to detail each blow and cut.10 Because most of Lindow Man’s legs were not found, Connolly took apparent glee in the fact that the missing limbs could be “in somebody’s tomato compost!”11
For several decades, Lindow Man was studied alongside other northern European bog bodies. Archaeologists looked for patterns across these remains and developed schema in an attempt to bring order to the violent chaos of their deaths.12 Every scrap of fiber on their bodies, every undigested morsel of food in their stomachs has been subject to testing. Minutiae—such as the amount of the hallucinogenic fungus ergot infecting the grasses in Grauballe Man’s stomach—has been re-tested and re-evaluated (turns out there was likely not enough ergot in his system to affect his mental condition).13 Recent research is situating bog bodies within their immediate landscapes by studying topography, spatial positioning, pollen count, macrofossils, and amoebae.14
But for all that scientific fact can unravel the mysteries of these bog bodies, these explanations don’t lessen our fascination with them as metaphors of (im)mortality. As archaeologist Laurent Olivier said of bog bodies, “It gets you every time … they were there, so close, just below the surface, as if beneath the membrane of life … present and invisible, like the strange world of layers and walls interspersed with cavities, canals and tendons that live beneath our skin.”15 In our knowing of them, bog bodies do not lose their magic.
The same can be said of the peat bog itself. Rather than looking into the black eye of a kettle bog [fig. 4] and imagining it a portal to the underworld, we now know that the water runs dark because of the tannins released when peat moss—mostly Sphagnum—slowly decays.16 When bogs quake under our feet the explanation doesn’t lie in grindylows but in the capacity of Sphagnum to absorb up to twenty times its weight in water.17 But knowing doesn’t make the bog any less of a wondrous place. In fact, science can show us just how magical moss is.
Sphagnum moss is the architect of the bog and the reason for bog bodies. The life of moss revolves around water. Because they don’t have root systems, they get most of their nutrients from minerals in rain and surface water. The leaves of Sphagnum moss are one cell thick, which means that every cell can take in water. And the cellular structure Sphagnum is designed to absorb as much as it can. While there are a scattering of green, living cells that contain chlorophyll, most are empty chambers designed to draw in water and move it through the moss’s capillary network of densely-packed leaves and stems.18
By holding up to twenty times its weight in water, this moss transforms its ecosystem. Peat bogs get their start in places where rainwater collects.19 Sphagnum settles itself into the mire and draws in water. As the soil around the moss gets saturated, what would usually be air pockets between soil particles is instead filled with more water. The soil becomes anoxic—without oxygen—and plants with root systems can no longer grow there. The moss doesn’t mind though. It continues to push up toward the sun (which is easier in the absence of leafy competitors) a few centimeters per year.20
Because of the anoxic condition of the water-logged soil, the lower parts of the peat moss decay very slowly. This creates a tangled mat of soil and dead Sphagnum that gets pressed down into the water year after year. This is the peat of the peat bog—a water-logged, anoxic, acidic environment perfect for Sphagnum moss, bog bodies, and not much else. When Lindow Man was killed and left submerged in the bog, the conditions created by the peat moss meant that the usual process of decay never began. Rather the soft tissue—skin, hair, nails—was preserved in the tannic acid of the bog, not unlike leather.21
Sphagnum moss, this unassuming little plant with fragile curling leaves and a bright green color, not only creates bogs but also creates the conditions in which corpses become bog bodies. As the moss lives and dies it creates a portal through which we can learn about the lives and beliefs of our ancient ancestors.
Today, we may approach a bog armed with scientific knowledge of how it comes to be. But does that make it any less astonishing?
Figure 1: Peat workings at Lindow Moss. David Kitching via Wikipedia.
Figure 2: A skeleton playing the lute from Pierre Michault, La Dance aux aveigles, France, 1466 (BnF, Français 1654, fol. 171r) via Discarding Images.
Figure 3: Haraldskær Woman on display at Vejle Museum. Johan Swe via Atlas Obscura.
Figure 4: Dead Picea abies in a bog pool: Brockenfeldmoor. Nicholas Turland via flickr.
Figure 5: Sphagnum moss. Kirill Ignatyev via flickr.
Wijnand A.B. van der Sanden, “Bog Bodies: Underwater Burials, Sacrifices, and Execution,” in The Oxford Handbook of Wetland Archaeology, eds. Francesco Menotti and Aidan O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 402.
Melanie Giles, Bog Bodies: Face to Face with the Past (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), 73.
Dave Sammut and Chantelle Craig, “Bodies in the Bog: The Lindow Mysteries,” Distillations Magazine (23 July 2019). Accessed 26 October 2023. https://sciencehistory.org/stories/magazine/bodies-in-the-bog-the-lindow-mysteries/
Quoted in Giles, 1.
Velson Horie, “Resurrecting Lindow Man,” The Journal of Wetland Archaeology 19:1-2 (2019), 35.
Henry Chapman, “The Landscape Archaeology of Bog Bodies,” The Journal of Wetland Archaeology 15:1 (2015), 112.
R.C. Connolly, “Lindow Man: Britain’s Prehistoric Bog Body,” Anthropology Today 1:5 (1985), 16.
Mike Parker Pearson, “Lindow Man and the Danish Connection: Further Light on the Mystery of the Bogman,” Anthropology Today 2:1 (1986), 16.
van der Sanden, 409.
For instance, Chapman, “The Landscape Archaeology of Bog Bodies” as well as Gill Plunkett et. al., “A Multi-proxy Paleoenvironmental investigation of the findspot of an Iron Age Bog Body from Oldcroghan, Co. Offaly, Ireland,” Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (2009), 265-277.
Laurent Olivier, The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 39.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Portland: Oregon State University Press, 2003), 112.
Håkan Rydin, et. al., The Biology of Peatlands, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 69-70.
Sammut and Craig.