Bogs are formed by the accumulation of plant debris over long periods of time. Interestingly, these wetlands also have an uncanny ability to preserve buried items.
Many artifacts, including human bodies, have been found in bogs, perfectly preserved for thousands of years. In fact, some bog bodies are so well-preserved that scientists can still analyze the contents of their stomachs, revealing their last meals and offering insights into ancient diets.
These mummified ancient human remains have all got stories to tell, and today we'll look at the weird science that makes their preservation possible.
Common in cool, wet parts of the world, bogs are waterlogged grounds that form when decaying plant matter — known as peat — accumulates in low-lying areas.
Bogs are usually found in cool climates and often in lake basins created by ice age glaciers that no longer get a steady flow of river or stream water. Over time, mosses cover the heap like a blanket, and in most cases, this mossy layer is primarily made of sphagnum.
Sphagnum moss can dramatically alter its surroundings. When water or dirt is trapped beneath it, they are deprived of their usual oxygen supply from the air. The peat created by sphagnum can also absorb calcium and magnesium, turning the soil and water beneath it mildly acidic.
Since bacteria and fungi find those conditions inhospitable, the dead vegetation decomposes at a phenomenally slow rate. Instead of breaking down right away, it lingers. Piling up over time, masses of the botanical waste gradually turn into peat: a soggy, mud-colored substance.
Peat can be used as animal bedding and as a fossil fuel, which makes it an important commodity in places like the Irish midlands. But to archaeologists, peat is a lot less valuable than the corpses of Homo sapiens that sometimes come with it.
Bog Bodies Uncovered
Bog bodies, also known as bog people, are human cadavers that have been naturally mummified in a peat bog. Many bog bodies date back to the Iron Age (around 1300 B.C.E. to 800 C.E., depending on the region), though some are even older.
The title of the "oldest known bog body" goes to the Koelbjerg Man, which is believed to date back to around 8000 B.C.E., making it the earliest known bog body from the Mesolithic period.
These bodies have been discovered in various parts of Northern Europe, particularly in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the British Isles and Ireland. The unique chemical composition of bogs, which includes cold temperatures, acidic water and a lack of oxygen, prevents the usual decomposition of the body after death. As a result, the soft tissues of the body can be preserved for thousands of years.
These bog mummies are most often found in raised bogs, which are domed-shaped formations that develop in cool temperate regions. The conditions in the bog can preserve skin, hair and clothing to a remarkable degree.
However, the bones of many bog bodies can be demineralized by the acidic water, making them more fragile. The preserved skin often takes on a dark or tanned appearance due to the tannins in the bog water.
Iron Age CSI
Bogs have long fascinated humans — and not just for their fossil fuels. The spongy soil, which often burns, has intrigued people as far back as the Bronze Age. Many people died in these bogs or were placed there after their deaths. And these bodies have been found all over the world.
The wetlands of northwestern Europe, for instance, is a bog body hub. Hundreds of these corpses have turned up in Germany, England, the Netherlands and neighboring countries. In 2011, peat harvesters working in Ireland's Cúl na Móna Bog accidentally ran over a Bronze Age corpse with a milling machine.
The harvester found all that was left of an adult male — dubbed the "Cashel Man" — who'd probably died in his 20s.
His body was riddled with injuries, including a broken arm and a nasty cut across the backside. Some of these may have been caused by the compressing weight of the bog moss above him — or the blades of that milling device. Nevertheless, archaeologists have reason to suspect that the Cashel Man was a ritualized sacrifice victim.
(Stab wounds, slit throats and evidence of torture have been observed on other European bog bodies. Historians think the local wetlands were once a hotbed for ritual human sacrifice and other forms of violent death.)
Carbon dating tells us the Cashel Man perished about 4,000 years ago, seven centuries before King Tut was born. To date, he's the oldest European bog body on record with intact skin. That's right: The corpse of somebody who's been dead for four millennia still has its skin attached.
And this isn't a fluke. Lots of bog bodies retain some or all of their original skin. The Tollund Man, a 2,300-year-old corpse recovered from a Denmark peat bog in 1950, has skeletonized hands, but elsewhere his skin is so well-preserved that little details, like the wrinkles on his forehead, are still visible.
Although the Tollund Man's skin didn't rot away, the mummification process did change its appearance and texture. Like the Cashel Man, the Haraldskjaer Woman and lots of other bog body finds, he's got quite a tan going on.
Bog mummies often sport leathery, dark brown skin. (Some of them also have preserved hair that turned red after death.) This is most likely caused by sphagnan, a recently discovered polymer that seeps out of dead sphagnum moss.
Leather is made through a process that strengthens the bonds between some of the natural fibers in animal hides. As a tanning agent, sphagnan has the same effect on human skin, rendering it tough and tea-colored.
Sphagnan also binds with nitrogen, which bacteria need to survive. So by removing nitrogen from the environment, sphagnan helps prevent the spread of microorganisms that would normally break down human and animal remains. Furthermore, sphagnan — along with the acid that it turns into — pulls calcium right out of dead bodies and bones get weakened in the process.
Although sphagnan does a fine job of preserving skin, its calcium-thievery isn't great for skeletons. Mummies have been found in certain bogs with soft, extra-flimsy bones that are about as sturdy as cardboard and have been distorted by heavy peat.
But that's assuming the decalcification process doesn't altogether eliminate them. Several bog bodies have been found missing bones, and some of the mummies are totally boneless. The latter are basically human-shaped bags of leathery skin wrapped around some pickled organs.
Not all bogs are so hostile to bones, though. The water's acidity level varies from bog to bog, and this impacts corpse preservation. Archaeologists have discovered that in really acidic peat bogs, the resident mummies have lots of skin and soft tissue, but weak or nonexistent bones.
But there are some boggy places with relatively alkaline — or "basic" — water. Here, the environment pretty much has the opposite effect on corpses. Look at the Windover Archaeological Site, a peat-bottomed pond in Florida that became the final resting place for dozens of Indigenous Americans between 6,990 and 8,120 years ago.
Skeletal remains from 168 people have turned up in the peat. A large deposit of crushed-up snail shells lying under the pond supplies the water with magnesium and calcium carbonates. That makes the water more alkaline, neutralizing the sphagnan to an extent.
Instead of mummified skin bags, the bog is rife with naked bones and skeletons. Bare as they are on the outside, the ancient bones had a big surprise in store for scientists: Brain tissue was found in more than 90 of the Windover pond skulls.
World's Largest Peat Bog
The West Siberian Plain, spanning over 1.2 million square kilometers (463,323 square miles) in Russia, is the world's largest peat bog. Located between the Ural Mountains and the Yenisei River, it's a mix of forests, swamps and deep peat layers, some extending up to 33 feet (10 meters) in depth.
These peatlands are crucial carbon sinks, capturing vast amounts of carbon over thousands of years. As the undecomposed organic material accumulates, it traps carbon, preventing its release into the atmosphere.
This function is vital in mitigating climate change. However, human activities, like draining for agriculture and forestry, pose threats by releasing this stored carbon as greenhouse gases. Additionally, rising global temperatures risk releasing potent methane from these peatlands.
Beyond its climate significance, the plain houses diverse flora and fauna, making its protection essential for both ecological and climatic reasons.
This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.
Now That's Interesting
Most carnivorous plants — such as sundews and pitcher plants — grow in bog soils, which tend to be nutrient-poor. Eating animal prey is a strategy that helps them obtain vital nutrients.
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