The picture is like something out of a horror film: a mist-swathed bog, men hard at work and then, out of the peat, a grisly sight. Something so shocking and macabre, in fact, that it’s difficult to comprehend. But, incredibly, the story of how it got there is perhaps even more intriguing than how it was found.
At any rate, the scene just described is what likely happened outside a small Danish town more than 60 years ago. What we know for sure, though, is that a team of workers dug up a remarkably well-preserved piece of the distant past which had lain buried around three feet down in the peat. And, what’s more, in doing so they brought an ancient murder mystery right into the present.
That historic event happened in 1952, just outside the village of Grauballe. While digging into the peat that the villagers used for fuel at that time, a group of cutters came across a body – hidden deep in the bog. But this wasn’t any ordinary body. Indeed, its skin was tanned almost black, and the top of its head was covered with a shock of red hair. At first, then, the villagers thought they had solved a much more recent mystery.
It was, perhaps understandably, the red hair that made them come to that conclusion. That was because in 1887 a local man called Red Christian went missing. He was known as a big drinker, so people assumed that he’d wandered into the bogs one night in a drunken stupor and had subsequently met an unpleasant end. In actual fact, however, the body in the bog had suffered a much more unpleasant fate.
It’s fair to say that the people of Grauballe got their estimates on the body’s age slightly wrong. They were actually off by more than 2,000 years, as carbon dating eventually placed the body at around the middle of the third century B.C. But that wasn’t the only astonishing thing about what is now called the Grauballe Man.
Firstly, the body was incredibly well-preserved. So well-preserved, in fact, that prints could be taken from the hands and feet. That was, essentially, down to the nature of the peat bog that Grauballe Man was found in. Such peat acts to stop the breakdown of the soft tissues of the body, and it’s why we know so much about this Iron Age corpse.
For example, we know that Grauballe Man was 30 years old when he died. We also know that his hands showed no evidence of strenuous labor. But what’s really disturbing is that we know some truly horrific things about his life. More specifically, it’s been discovered how that life came to an abrupt end.
Indeed, the reason for Grauballe Man’s death was obvious from the scientists’ first inspection. A deep gash ran from under one ear all the way to the other. And there was no doubt about it: the wound could not have been self-inflicted. That meant that someone must have slit Grauballe Man’s throat before he ended up in the peat bog.
What’s more, further examination of the wound revealed that it was actually a combination of multiple slashes. This left scientists with two potential explanations for the gruesome discovery. Either Grauballe Man was murdered, or he was the victim of a pagan ritual that involved human sacrifice.
But there was still more to come. Indeed, it was also discovered that one of Grauballe Man’s legs was shattered. His skull, meanwhile, had suffered what looked like a heavy blow. Consequently, archaeologists began to paint a picture of ritualistic abuse and torture: a picture of a man battered, butchered, then thrown into the peat bogs.
So, because of the quality of the preservation of Grauballe Man, he has become one of the most studied bog bodies in Europe. And in the time since his discovery, a number of strides have been made in archaeological methods. Intriguingly, then, these have revealed that some of what we thought we knew was actually wrong.
In fact, because of the way that the bones of Grauballe Man were preserved, initial X-rays of them didn’t reveal that much. The bones, apparently, merely resembled glass. However, recent developments in C.T. scan technology have allowed us to look even deeper into his body than ever before. And this process has come up with some surprising results.
Perhaps surprisingly, scientists now believe that the fracture in Grauballe Man’s skull was actually caused by the weight of the peat bog. Apparently, this was then exacerbated when a boy in clogs stood on the body while it was being excavated. Moreover, there’s a good chance that the broken leg was also caused by the bog. However, there is an alternative theory as to the cause of this injury.
Specifically, some researchers have suggested that the leg wound is actually evidence of a blow inflicted on Grauballe Man to make him kneel. This ties in with the theory that Grauballe Man was sacrificed as part of a ritual before being interred in the bog.
Yet while Grauballe Man is purportedly the most studied bog body in the world, he’s by no means the only one. A number of other bodies have been found in similar conditions, in fact. And the stories surrounding them have changed with time as well. Indeed, science often contravenes the original theories surrounding these preserved pieces of history.
For example, one pair of bodies in Germany was believed to be the remains of an adulteress and her lover, killed and plunged into a bog to pay for their crimes. Further research, however, showed that the woman – who was initially dubbed “Windeby Girl” – was actually a man. What’s more, the supposed lover was actually found to be three centuries older than the other corpse.
Meanwhile, the shaved hair on the “woman,” which had initially pointed to evidence of a ritual killing, was more than likely accidentally cut off when the body was exhumed. Additionally, it also turned out that it was far more likely that malnutrition and natural causes had killed the man – not, in fact, some ancient form of punishment.