The Tollund Man is the naturally mummified corpse of a man who lived during the 4th century BCE, during the period characterised in Scandinavia as the Pre-Roman Iron Age. He was found in 1950 on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, buried in a peat bog which preserved his body. Such a find is known as a bog body. The man's physical features were so well-preserved that he was mistaken at the time of discovery for a recent murder victim. Twelve years before Tollund Man's discovery, another bog body, Elling Woman, had been discovered in the same bog. Ancient bodies have been found in bogs in England and Ireland as well.
On 6 May 1950, brothers Viggo and Emil Højgaard from the small village of Tollund were cutting peat in the Bjældskovdal peat bog, 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) west of Silkeborg, Denmark. As they worked, one of their wives, who was helping to load the peat on a carriage, noticed a corpse in the peat layer. It appeared so fresh that the workers believed they had discovered a recent murder victim. After much deliberation, the woman notified the police in Silkeborg. The find was reported to the police on Tuesday 8 May 1950. They were baffled by the condition of the body and, in an attempt to identify the time of death, they brought in archaeology professor P. V. Glob. Upon initial examination, Glob suggested that the body was over 2,000 years old and most likely the victim of a ritual sacrifice.
The Tollund Man lay 50 metres (160 ft) away from firm ground, buried under approximately 2 metres (6.6 ft) of peat, his body arranged in a foetal position. He wore a pointed skin cap made of sheepskin and wool, fastened securely under his chin by a hide thong. There was a smooth hide belt around his waist. Additionally, the corpse had a noose made of plaited animal hide drawn tight around the neck and trailing down his back. Other than these, the body was naked. His hair was cropped so short as to be almost entirely hidden by his cap. There was short stubble (1 mm length) on his chin and upper lip, suggesting that he had not shaved on the day of his death.
Scholars believe the man was a human sacrifice rather than executed criminal because of the arranged position of his body, and the fact that his eyes and mouth were closed.
Scientific examination and conclusions
Underneath the body was a thin layer of moss. Scientists know that this moss was formed in Danish peat bogs in the early Iron Age; therefore, the body was suspected to have been placed in the bog more than 2,000 years ago during that period. Subsequent C14 radiocarbon dating of Tollund Man indicated that he died in approximately 375–210 BCE. The preserved tender soft tissues of his body are the consequence of the acid in the peat, along with the lack of oxygen underneath the surface and the cold climate of the Nordic countries. The acid in the peat, needed for the preservation of a human body is caused by a bryophyte named Sphagnum. Sphagnum fight against degradation due to resistant phenolic compounds contained in their cell walls. However, because of the acidity of peat, bones are normally dissolved rather than preserved.
Examinations and X-rays showed that the man's head was undamaged, and his heart, lungs and liver were well preserved. The Silkeborg Museum estimated his age as approximately 40 years and height at 1.61 metres (5 ft 3 in), a relatively short stature even for the time. It is likely that the body had shrunk in the bog.
On the initial autopsy report in 1950, doctors concluded that Tollund Man died by hanging rather than strangulation. The rope left visible furrows in the skin beneath his chin and at the sides of his neck. There was no mark, however, at the back of the neck where the knot of the noose would have been located. After a re-examination in 2002, forensic scientists found further evidence to support these initial findings. Although the cervical vertebrae were undamaged (these vertebrae are often damaged as a result of hanging), radiography showed that the tongue was distended—an indication of death by hanging.
The stomach and intestines were examined and tests carried out on their contents. The scientists discovered that the man's last meal had been a kind of porridge made from vegetables and seeds, both cultivated and wild: barley, linseed, gold of pleasure (Camelina sativa) and knotgrass.
There were no traces of meat in the man's digestive system, and from the stage of digestion it was apparent that the man had lived for 12 to 24 hours after this last meal. In other words, he may not have eaten for up to a day before his death. Although similar vegetable soups were not unusual for people of this time, two interesting things were noted:
- The soup contained many different kinds of wild and cultivated seeds. Because these seeds were not readily available, it is likely that some of them were gathered deliberately for a special occasion.
- The soup was made from seeds only available near the spring where he was found.
Kingship and sacrifice
The presence of this body, with many other bodies of humans and animals found in the surrounding bogs, has led many researchers to question the subject. While some point to a sacrificial cult dedicated to the gods of fertility / fecundity (the Freyr / Freyja Viking couple), there is a research conducted in Ireland since 2003 (National Museum of Ireland's Bog bodies Research Project) on the same type of bodies that studies these dead traces of rituals royalty. The dead were in the presence of objects that seem to be used on the occasion of the enthronement of a new king and the bodies were deposited in areas marking the border of the royal estate.
The body is displayed at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, although only the head is original. Because conservation techniques for organic material were insufficiently advanced in the early 1950s for the entire body to be preserved, the forensic examiners suggested the head be severed and the rest of the body remain unpreserved. Subsequently the body desiccated and the tissue disappeared. In 1987, the Silkeborg Museum reconstructed the body using the skeletal remains as a base. As displayed today, the original head is attached to a replica of the body.
Both feet and the right thumb, being well conserved by the peat, were also preserved in formalin for later examination. In 1976, the Danish Police Force made a finger-print analysis, making Tollund Man's thumb print one of the oldest finger-prints on record.
Other Danish bog bodies
There have been several other prehistoric bog body finds in Denmark. From Jutland specifically, examples comprise the relatively well preserved Borremose bodies, dating from the Iron Age, and the Grauballe Man from the Germanic Iron Age, found in central Jutland and on display at Moesgård Museum near Aarhus . Similar bog chemistry was at work in conserving the Haraldskær Woman, also discovered in Jutland as a mummified Iron Age specimen. Forensic analysis suggests a violent death, or perhaps a ritualistic sacrifice, due to the presence of noose marks and a puncture wound.
Not all bog bodies had a violent death, there are also examples of what are thought to be ordinary and less dramatic burials. Most of the bog bodies are less well-preserved than the ones mentioned above.
In popular culture
Nobel Prize–winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote a series of poems inspired by the bog bodies of Northern Europe, published in his 1975 collection North. The Tollund Man is the subject of a poignant eponymous poem that compares the ritual sacrifices of ancient Celtic Europe to the similar sacrifice of those murdered by the Irish Republican Army. The poem was translated into Danish by Uffe Harder and Annette Mester in the book Markarbejde, published by Gyldendal in 1994. "Tollund Man" is also the name of a song by The Mountain Goats, featured on their 1995 album Sweden, and English rock band The Darkness also released a song called 'Curse of the Tollund Man' as a B-Side on the CD release of their 2004 single Love Is Only a Feeling. Additionally, the Tollund Man is the subject of the short story "The Bog Man" from Margaret Atwood's book Wilderness Tips.
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- Silkeborg Museum, The Tollund Man's Appearance, Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Silkeborg Public Library, 2004
- Silkeborg Museum, Latest Research, Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Silkeborg Public Library, 2004
- Silkeborg Museum, Was the Tollund Man Hanged?, Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Silkeborg Public Library (SPL), 2004
- Silkeborg Museum, The Last Meal, Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, Silkeborg Public Library, 2004
- William P. Reaves. "The Cult of Freyr and Freyja". (2008): p.8-11, 19 October 2014.
- National Museum of Ireland, 19 October 2014. http://www.museum.ie/en/exhibition/list/exhibition-details-kingshipsacrifice.aspx
- P.V. Glob: The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, New York Review of Books (New York) 2004, ISBN 1-59017-090-3. Translated from the Danish original: Mosefolket, 1965 ISBN 87-00-20201-0.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tollundmanden.|
- Tollund Man - A Face from Prehistoric Denmark
- Tollund Man at PBS
- The Tollund Man at the Wayback Machine (archived 1 September 2000)
- The Tollund Man and The Tollund Man in Springtime by Seamus Heaney
- National Geographic September 2007: "Tales From the Bog"
- Image of the facial reconstruction to show what Tollund Man had looked when he was alive