Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 487:
THE BOG MEN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 487.

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 recently.

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 bogs.

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,
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.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
(Theme music)


Glob, P.V., The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved (Tr. R. Bruce-Mitford). New York: Cornell University Press, 1969.
The verse quoted in the text is by Thogar Larsen. Glob uses it as the frontispiece of his book. Glob dedicates his book to the names of fifteen girls. It seems he wrote it in answer to a letter from a class in an English girls' school. They'd written to find out more about the bog people.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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