Blogging Glob’s “Bog People” bog

He is not dead, but sleeping

P.V. Glob, tr. Bruce-Mitford, The Bog People, 1965/1969.

Without having read it, I’ve been citing this bog (“book” = “bog” in Danish) for years now just for the euphony, and now I can trump that.

Even without the snappy title the book would be intrinsically worth reading, if only for the 64 pages of well-done black and white pictures of ~ 2,000 years old human sacrifices and other relics. Ideal bog conditions (not every bog will do) have preserved many bodies so well that they’re often thought to be recent murder victims, and one body was successfully fingerprinted. Such finds are common in Denmark, neighboring areas of Germany and the Netherlands, and parts of the British Isles (but not Sweden or Norway).

Glob’s archaeology is presumably out of date (too much mutterrecht, for one thing), but his history of how these discoveries have been handled in Denmark over the centuries is interesting.  In every era the police have usually been called first, with the local priest called next during  the earliest period, either to give the bodies a Christian burial or to exorcise them. During the 19th century bodies were sometimes treated as curiosities and could become circus exhibits,  but nowadays everything is routinely handled by scientists.

In 1950s a tabloid newspaper claimed that the recently-discovered  Tollund Man was a recent murder victim, but that hooplah died down once the radiocarbon dating came in.  In one instance the railway freight agent rather unreasonably insisted on charging the high fresh-cadaver price for the shipment of a bog body, even though it was encased in a much larger quantity of peat, which ships much more cheaply. (This will remind some Americans of an old humor piece, “Pigs is pigs”, in which a railway agent charges the per-hog price for shipping guinea pigs.)

Sinister bogs figure in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Hamsun’s Mysteries, and presumably many other Scandinavian literary works. And since Christ’s death on the cross was an atonement and substitute for this kind of spring sacrifice, my post is timely.


Back about 80 years ago a similar archeological find was found here in Wobegon, on land owned by a guy I once worked for: the Sauk Valley Skeleton. It was initially thought to have been from the very ending of the American Ice Age and thus one of the earliest human skeletons in North America, but the skeleton has been redated to 2200 BC or so and the chronology of North American settlement revised, so it has lost most of its importance. As in medieval Europe, a priest was the first one called in, and Father Henry Restak of West Union thus became the co-author of an academic monograph. The discovery of the Sauk Valley Skeleton led to new laws protecting Minnesota archeological sites.

Discovery of Sauk Valley Man of Minnesota, with an Account of the Geology, and The Sauk Valley Skeleton. Bryan, Kirk, Henry Retzak & Franklin T. McCann; A. E. Jenks & Lloyd A. Wilford, Texas Archaeological and Paleontological Society, 1938.

Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 7:17 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You may want to remove an unintended letter from “high fresh-cadaver price for the shipment of a blog body”–unless, of course, you find it as amusing as I do.

  2. With great regret I made that correction, and I do thank you, and if I had found a mistake like that on someone else’s blog I would have been as delighted as I’m sure you were. Blogging Glob’s bog book is no circus….

    And in fact, I have to rewrite the whole thing, since I just remembered that the Danish word for “book” is “bog”. And I meant to put that in there all along.

  3. I bet the Native-American one isn’t one display, though. For some reason Native Americans freak out about that. I remember when they had to remove the mummy from the Mesa Verde museum due to public outcry.

    But the Danes just love the Tollund dude–my relatives took me to see it all ensconced in its glass case. They had it in the middle of the museum floor so you could walk all the way around it and get a good look. They like to look at his hands and compare with their own hands, the same with the prehistoric stone tools they dig up in their gardens, turning them over and trying them on for fit.

    I wasn’t quite as enthused, although I did appreciate seeing him. He’s a bit creepy, and so, so dead.

  4. When I was very small I saw an exhibit like this at a traveling circus, and it gave me the creeps for a moderate period of time. In retrospect I think that it was carved out of wood and treated.

    The touchiness came from cases when fairly recent skeletons were exhibited in museums, the equivalent of someone’s grandmother. It was pretty shameless. As law and politics got involved, it got messier and messier. I think that there should be some kind of statute of limitations, perhaps 200 or 300 years.

    Of course, if they Danes had been a conquered people, and their very distant ancestors had been exhibited in (say) Russian or Spanish museums, they might have been touchy too.

    But as I said, it was interesting to see how the discovery of bog bodies eventually became integrated as a standard part of Danish culture.

  5. One can only hope they’re carved out of wood. There was the unpleasant matter of Elmer McCurdy….

  6. Or the completely voluntary fate of Jeremy Bentham.

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