On World Wetlands Day Remember Me Co-Investigator, Professor Malcolm Lillie explores the relationship between wetlands and remembrance of the dead.
Wetlands are not, perhaps, the most obvious places with which to associate remembrance of the dead. However, throughout human history wetlands have been, and continue to be, places which people are drawn to for a range of religious and ceremonial reasons. The social and cultural values of wetlands are just one aspect of the significance of wetlands as defined by the RAMSAR Convention of 1971, but it was not until 1990 that the significance of these values was fully appreciated (Ramsar 2—8:16). Whilst the themes for World Wetlands Day differ each year, the fundamental attributes remain in place, and in keeping with the Remember Me project the focus of this short blog is, of course, Remembrance.
Most archaeologists are aware of the exceptional preservation that wetlands can provide in terms of cultural heritage assets; including trackways, villages, fishtraps, and all manner of artefacts of organic origin that are seldom preserved on dry sites. The recent international interest in the finds at Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens (www.mustfarm.com/) reinforce the wide appeal of and public interest in organic preservation in bringing to life the human past in a way that is unique to environments of extreme preservation – such a waterlogged, frozen and arid environments. Of course, in all of these environments the finds of human remains offer us the opportunity to see the dead in a way that is not normally afforded to us. For wetlands, the most evocative of these finds are the bog bodies; dating from the Mesolithic through to more recent historical periods (including the Second World War), that are mainly found in northwest Europe, but not exclusively. Upon discovery bog bodies often vary in their state of preservation, and can be either very well preserved with a considerable amount of soft tissue remaining e.g. the image of Tollund man (below), partially preserved in that some soft tissue remains but the cadaver is partially skeletonised, or skeletonised due to burial in an alkaline and/or aerated environment. Of course, the exact degree of preservation is dependent on a wide variety of factors.
As can be seen from the image of Windeby I (below) the preservation of the cadaver varies, being dependent on factors such as the specific characteristics of the bog itself at the time of deposition, the location that the body is placed in, and the changes that occur in the burial environment over time. This individual (originally thought to be a 14 year old female), has recently been confirmed to be a young male aged ca. 16-18 years at death. Upon discovery it appeared that the hair on the right side of the head had been shaved off, being preserved on the left side at ca. 4cm length and of a red-brown colour (although this could be influenced by the tannins in the bog). The brain was preserved in the cranium at the time of discovery. There is no obvious cause of death, but this is not all that unusual in archaeological finds of human remains. In general is appears that the cause of death can range from murder and suicide through to an explanation that revolves around ‘ritual’.
In a number of cases the bog body discoveries have provided unique insights into social aspects of a person’s life in prehistory through the discovery of preserved clothing or even the hair styles worn by the individual. The discovery of Clonycavan Man in 2003 in bog in County Meath, Ireland hit the headlines as “Brylcreem boy from the bog” after it was discovered that this young adult male, who was 5ft 2ins tall when he died, during the summer sometime between 392-201BC, had used a gel made from a vegetable plant oil mixed with resin that had probably been imported from south-western France or Spain to, as the papers put it, increase his apparent height by spiking his hair! This unique image of his life contrasts markedly with his death as he suffered three crushing blows to the head before being disembowelled and placed in the bog.
Tollund Man, who was ca. 30-40 years old when he died, was discovered on the 6th May 1950 in the Bjældkovdal bog near Tollund village some 12km from Silkeborg in Denmark has probably become the most ‘iconic’ of all bog bodies due to the fact that, despite having a plaited noose around his neck, which has left furrows on the sides of the neck and under the chin, images of the body make it look like he is in a somewhat comfortable and relaxing sleeping pose (image below). Tollund man is dated to the 4th century BC (375-210BC), but upon discovery he was so well-preserved that it was originally thought that he was a recent murder victim. He was in fact hanged, and possibly a ritual sacrificial victim who was killed during the winter or early spring. Due to the excellent preservation the contents of his stomach showed that his last meal was a porridge or gruel made up of over 40 ingredients, but primarily comprising barley, flax, false flax and knotgrass. Tollund Man is on display at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark.
Finally, a British example that is also well known is that of Lindow Man who was discovered at Lindow Moss, near Wilmslow in Cheshire on the 1st August 1984. This individual was an adult male aged around 20 at the time of death. He was killed by strangulation, being hit on the top of the head and having his throat cut, possibly for ritual purposes, sometime around the turn of the millennium at 2BC to 119AD. Other insults include a cut to the neck, a possible stab wound to the chest, a broken neck and fractured rib. The exact interpretation of all of these injuries remains a topic of debate, and it is possible that not all of these injuries were the result of inter-personal violence.
In terms of his appearance Lindow Man had brown hair and a trimmed beard, moustache and sideburns, and like Tollund Man he was naked upon discovery other than the fact that he had a fox-fur armband (Tollund man had a leather belt and cap). Analysis of Lindow Man’s stomach contents suggest that his last meal was a leavened bread cake, and mistletoe from the stomach suggest that death occurred in the Spring between March-April.
Bog bodies, the frozen mummies from the Andes or the Sythian burials from Pazyryk on the Ukok plateau in the Altai mountains of Siberia, and of course Egyptian mummies, all provide vivid insights into the past. We cannot know, of course, the names of the individuals themselves, but these exceptional remains provide us with unique insights into the past and even allow us to look into the faces of people who lived thousands of years ago. The information that can be recovered from these remains significantly enhances our understanding of the personal aspects of life in the past, down to the hairstyles of Clonycavan man from Ireland, the last meals of the Tollund, Grauballe and Lindow men, and even the body adornment (tattoos) as seen on the Ukok Princess (identified by dna analysis as a young male aged 16-17years at death by researchers from Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics in 2015). We can remember these individuals clearly as we can look upon them and wonder at their day to day lives, pondering their existence and the daily activates that, on reflection, would not really have that different to those of today – technological advancements notwithstranding.
Gill-Robinson, H.G. 2005. The iron age bog bodies of the Archaeologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany. The University of Manitoba:Unpublished PhD Thesis. pp.228-230 and 235-6.
Available at: http://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/handle/1993/20204
RAMSAR. 2008. Culture and Wetlands: a Ramsar Guidance document. Convention on Wetlands: Culture Working Group, Gland.
Ukok Princess – Siberian Times article: http://siberiantimes.com/culture/others/features/siberian-princess-reveals-her-2500-year-old-tattoos/
Professor Malcolm Lillie has been an archaeologist for 30 years. He currently integrates two specialist areas, the study of earlier prehistoric human remains and the study of wetlands into his research activities. Since 1999 Malcolm has undertaken studies of human remains from Britain, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Turkey and other regions of Europe, which are aimed at understanding social structures, diet and pathology in archaeological populations. Death and Memorialisation are fundamental aspects of his work in human remains analysis and Malcolm leads the Remember Me project stream “Deep in Time: Meaning and Mnemonic in Archaeological and Diaspora Studies of Death”.