Today, an old man tells us about life and death.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We don't know his name --
only that he came from the Tollund marsh, in
Denmark. His face is composed. It has an eerie
serenity. We'd like to chat with him. What would he
tell us about the birds, the low gray rain clouds,
or last year's barley crop? But he's dead now.
You'd think he'd died just the other day. In fact,
he's 17 centuries old.
The Tollund man is neither the first nor the last
body from the Danish peat bogs. Peat cutters have
found hundreds of them. They're iron-age villagers
who died during the days of Roman rule. The bog
waters, saturated with just the right soil acids,
have preserved them with no embalming.
We look at that gentle face and wonder why he died.
We lift a lump of peat from behind his head. To our
horror, we find a leather rope 'round his neck.
Someone strangled him before they threw him into
the swamp. But why! Was he a victim -- a thief?
Archaeologists go to work. They use forensic
medicine, botany, carbon dating, and more. They're
puzzled by what they find in the man's stomach. He
ate his last meal the day before he died. It was a
gruel made of grain and other plants. These people
weren't vegetarian. Yet he'd eaten no meat
The gruel was a witches' brew of winter plants. So
we make our own gruel by the same recipe. It tastes
awful. We look at last meals from other bog people.
One ate a gruel made from 63 different plants.
So the plot thickens. We ask how the others died.
Most were hanged, drowned, or had their throats
cut. The same bogs yield coins, legs of meat, and
pottery. People aren't the only valuables in the
Add all this up. Combine it with a few old
writings. And our Tollund man seems to have been
sacrificed to some goddess of the harvest.
Many bog people have well-preserved hands and feet.
Many show no signs of the toil that began and ended
peasant lives in old Northern Europe. If this was a
sacrificial death, it was one the wealthy shared
with the poor. They probably chose our Tollund man
by casting lots.
So this ancient man with the gentle face reaches
out to tell the continuity of life through death.
And a Danish poet writes,
Yet they were made of earth and fire as we,I'm John Lienhard, at the University of
Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive
The selfsame forces set us in our mould;
To life we woke from all that makes the past.
We grow on Death's tree as ephemeral flowers.