Forensic Case Files: The Tollund Man – A Bog Body

In 1950, in a bog near the small town of Tollund, Denmark, two brothers were cutting peat to use for fuel when they stumbled upon a corpse so well preserved, they were sure it was a recent murder victim. The police were called in and they recovered the body from under two meters of peat. Curled into the fetal position, the victim was naked except for a cap tied under his chin, a belt around his waist and a noose around his neck. Confused by the state of the remains, the police called in an archeologist who determined that the remains were not recent. In fact, the burial was over two thousand years old and likely that of a sacrificial victim.

The bog environment was responsible for this extraordinary preservation. Peat is composed of partially decayed plant life, usually Sphagnum moss, with smaller amounts of other vegetation. Because the wetland ecosystem is acidic and lacking both nutrients and oxygen, any decay process—plant or animal—is significantly slowed. The other crucial factor in this environment is the presence of tannins. Tannins naturally occur in plants, but only become active once the plant dies and its tissues break down. Tannins have been used for making leather by tanning—the process of treating animal skins to halt decay and make them more durable—since 7000 B.C.

Well-preserved remains found in peat bogs are called ‘bog bodies’ and have been discovered in many countries across Northern Europe. The conditions in the bog not only slow normal putrefaction and decomposition, but the chemicals in the peat tan the skin, inhibiting decay and resulting in remarkable preservation.

When scientists examined the body of the Tollund Man, they found detailed evidence of early Iron-age life. Radiocarbon dating determined that the man died between 375-210 B.C. at approximately 40 years of age. The cause of death was clear—he was hung by the braided animal hide rope around his neck, resulting in abrasions on the side of his neck and under his chin, and a distended tongue. His internal organs were still intact, and scientists could even determine that his final meal consisted of a porridge made from local wild and cultivated seeds and vegetables. Stubble on his face suggested that his final shave was likely the day before his death.

The remains of the Tollund Man are on display in the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. Unfortunately, due to preservation techniques of the day, only the head was preserved properly and the rest of the body’s soft tissue was lost outside of the protective environment of the bog. In 1987, a replica of the body was created based on Tollund Man’s skeletal remains and is displayed with the preserved head and all of his other artifacts.

From a forensics standpoint, I’m always amazed at the preservation of these bodies and how they shine a light on what life was like centuries or millennia ago. In many ways, when we are so distant from this way of life—a time when the oldest known European book wouldn’t be written for another 1,000 years—these remarkable remains continue to be our best window into past lives.

Photo credits: Wiki Commons