Bog Bodies | Topics In History

Everyone’s heard of the Egyptian mummies.  And most of us have heard of the Peruvian ice mummies, unearthed 500 years after their deaths in the mountains of Peru.  But what about the bog bodies?

Throughout Europe, these bog bodies have been turning up, in incredible condition, for centuries.  The first recorded bog body was found in 1640 in Germany.  Early ones were reburied in consecrated cemeteries, because locals believed they were recently deceased.  It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that anyone realized they were ancient.

 Bog Bodies | Topics In History

Ancient peoples believed that bogs were entrances to another world.  A world where gods and spirits mingled, entangled, and ran free.  A place to deposit their most feared, most beloved, and possibly their most powerful dead.

 

The bodies that have been pulled out of these peat bogs are usually around 2,000 years old, dating to the iron age.  Over the past few centuries, peat cutters and others have found over 1,000 of these bodies.  The most famous is probably Tollund Man.

Tollund ManBog Bodies was unearthed in 1950 in Denmark, naked and curled up like a child.  He wore nothing but a leather belt and a sheepskin cap, but a rope hung from his neck. The researchers who worked on him did not have the capability to preserve an entire body; however, they did preserve his head and neck.  Before the body decayed, researchers were able to determine what he had last eaten (stew), and approximately how long after that he died (12-24 hours).  Several of his internal organs were in perfect condition.  Due to his incredible preservation in the peat, they could tell that he was about 40 years old, 5’3” (1.61m) tall, with short hair and stubble on his face, and that he had died from hanging.  But what happened to his clothes?  Why was he wearing a belt and cap but nothing else? 

It’s likely that he was clothed when he was placed in the bog two thousand years ago, but that those clothes were made from plant based fibers such as flax or linen.  Since peat is, itself, plant based matter in various stages of decay, the clothes would’ve simply rotted away, leaving no trace.  Other theories are that he was not afforded clothes if he was executed, or that his death was a ritual sacrifice, and clothing was not a part of that ritual.

Bog Bodies

Yde Girl By Ruud Zwart (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bog bodies are often deemed ritual sacrifices, killed by their own people, though a few, namely Kayhausen Boy, seem to be murder victims.  Yde Girl,found in the Netherlands, is frequently considered a victim of ritual sacrifice.  She was about 16 when she was killed, and stood at just 4’6” (137 cm) tall.  Cashel Man, at 4,000 years old, has provided the oldest example of a bog body with skin still intact.  Archaeologists have also concluded that he was a victim of ritual sacrifice.   In the 1980s, similar corpses were found in a calcareous bog in Florida, becoming the first American bog bodies.

 

We’ve established that bog bodies occur, and that many are preserved so well you can see wrinkles and fine hair, but how does that happen at all?  Well, let’s get to it.

 Peat, the substance in most of these bogs, has been used for centuries to thatch roofs, treat soil, and create bedding for animals in Europe, so peat cutters are usually the discoverers of these bodies.  The chemical construction of the peat, which is created during the slowed decomposition of vegetation and moss, creates a boggy, acidic wetland.

In one type of bog, the acidiferous bog, acid leaches into the skin and preserves it like leather.  But when this acid reaches the bones, it corrodes them.  Bog bodies thus end up twisted in strange manners, or sometimes appearing deflated, because of their decayed bones.  Essentially, the skin in an acidiferous bog is treated like a cucumber in pickling brine.  The acidic tannins in these bogs turned the skin into human leather.  It also dyes the bodies’ hair to a bronze-red color.

Bog Bodies

Osterby Man by Wikipedia Uploader Bullenwächter

In calcareous bogs the acid is more closely aligned to the chemical makeup of the bones, and eats through the skin.  This leaves bog bodies as perfectly preserved skeletons with little to no soft tissue left.  Osterby Man (pictured above) has only a small patch of skin, along with hair exhibiting a Suebian knot style.

The peat also blocks oxygen from reaching the bodies, which aids in the preservation process by preventing bacterial growth.

 

There have been hundreds of bog bodies found throughout Northwestern Europe, and they have provided valuable clues to what life was like in Iron Age and Bronze Age Europe.  We will likely continue to find them for hundreds of years, preserved so well you can still see the patterns on their toes.

 

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Great Zimbabwe: An African Archaeological Site

Let’s get this out of the way first, Africa is a continent, not a country.  There is an incredible amount of biodiversity among the animals on the continent, and there is at least as much diversity among the human cultures on the continent of Africa.  There are flourishing beautiful cities, and there are impoverished rural farms.  African history is an area in which American schooling lags behind.  We study and teach our own history, we teach European history, and then we teach “world history” which so often ends up meaning Ancient European history.

Today’s post is a bit of background on Great Zimbabwe.  I first learned about Great Zimbabwe as a sophomore in an archaeology class.  But I think it should be just as famous as Stonehenge.  Let me tell you why.

Great Zimbabwe

Original image by Jan Derk in 1997, released into the public domain.

 

Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Zimbabwe, and it dates to the eleventh century.  The nation of Zimbabwe also considers it a National Monument, and a source of national pride.  In fact, the nation’s name is derived from that of the monument.

 

There are actually two possible etymologies for “Zimbabwe”, both from the Shona word for houses, dzimba.  One possibility is “Dzimba-dza-mabwe” which translates as “large houses of stone” in the Karanga dialect of Shona.  The other possibility is “Dzimba-hwe” which translates to “venerated houses” in the Zezuru dialect of Shona, and was usually reserved for the homes or gravesites of kings and rules.  Shona is a subgroup of Bantu, and it refers to both a cultural group and the language they speak.

 

The first European record of Great Zimbabwe was recorded by Vicente Pegado, a Portuguese captain, in 1531.  But he recorded it as Simbaoe.  This spelling carried on among Europeans for a century or more, and it was recorded on a 1570 map.

Great Zimbabwe on a 1570 Map as Simbaoe

Abraham Oretlius’ Africae Tabula Nova Map (1570)

 

Radiocarbon dating puts the construction of the structures at Great Zimbabwe in the eleventh century CE.  There is, however, archaeological evidence of a settlement on the same location as far back as the fifth century CE.  Who exactly built Great Zimbabwe has been a source of contention for centuries.  Most scholars agree that the Gokomere people, an ancestral group of the Shona people, built and inhabited Great Zimbabwe, but there is a cohesive dissent in favor of the Lemba people.  The Lemba people, a fascinating group themselves, assert that their ancestors built the structures at Great Zimbabwe.  Some scholars support this origin, including Ken Mufuka.  As we’ll discuss later, there have been a lot of theories surrounding the origin of Great Zimbabwe.

 

This site is actually three groupings of structures.  Great Zimbabwe covers 7.3 square kilometers, approximately 1,800 acres.  For reference Central Park is 843 square acres.  Within the overall title “Great Zimbabwe” there is the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Complex.  Within the Hill Complex is the Eastern Enclosure, and this is where the Zimbabwe Bird sculptures were found.  The Great Enclosure encompasses two sets of walls and a series of structures inside of the inner walls.  The Valley Complex is actually two complexes: Upper Valley, and Lower Valley, which were occupied at different times, and seem to have housed more people.  As to the purposes of each complex, there are two competing theories.  The first theory is a chronological explanation, wherein the Hill Complex was occupied in the eleventh to twelfth centuries, and then the inhabitants moved to the Great Enclosure, then the Upper Valley complex, and finally to the Lower Valley complex in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  There have been even more modern structures found in the Valley Complex, dating to the nineteenth century.  Some scholars also say that the structures and complexes were the work of different successive rulers.

Great Zimbabwe Hill Complex

View of the Hill Complex from the Valley.
Image by Jan Derk in 1997, released into the public domain.

The other theory of occupation is a structuralist idea.  According to structuralists, the Hill Complex was likely a temple, the Valley Complex the home of citizens, and the Great Enclosure the home of rulers.  In support of this, many scholars have said that the walls of the Great Enclosure were symbolic of power.  Possibly in opposition to this theory, there is evidence of multiple dwellings within the Great Enclosure¹.

Two early accounts from Arab merchants indicate that there was, at least at that time, writing above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, which they could not read.

 

Within the Hill Complex archaeologists found sculptures in the shape of a bird seeming to sit on a throne.  These sculptures have been referred to as the Zimbabwe Birds, and are now a symbol of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean people.

Zimbabwe Bird

Zimbabwe Bird by J. Patrick Fisher, under a CC Attribution 3.0 License

 

Archaeological evidence during the time of occupation suggests that, at its height, Great Zimbabwe housed upwards of 10,000 people, perhaps even up to 20,000.  Most of those likely lived in the valley, though, as scholars believe that only 200-300 lived in the actual stone buildings.

The residents of Great Zimbabwe were part of a huge network of trade, from the Swahili Coast to India and on to China.  Archaeologists have found potsherds that originate in China, as well as thousands of glass beads, copper coins from the Swahili Coast and the Arabian peninsula, and dishes from Persia².  While there are other structures in Southern Africa that have similar architecture, especially the mortarless construction, there doesn’t seem to be any architectural exchange between Great Zimbabwe and the other cultures with whom they traded.  The hills surrounding Great Zimbabwe produced enormous amounts of gold, which was the main item of trade for the residents.

Great Zimbabwe is surrounded by land, but it is not highly arable land.  Instead, scholars think that most of the farming in the valley consisted of raising cattle, and growing cereal crops².  The residents likely imported most of their other food from other locales, trading for the cattle, cereal grains, or even the gold that was plentiful in the area.

Great Zimbabwe's Conical Tower

Inside the Great Enclosure.
Image by Marius Loots, licensed under Creative Commons.

 

In the fifteenth century, probably between 1450 and 1500 CE, the population of Great Zimbabwe began to decline.  By the sixteenth century it was abandoned.  Most scholars agree that the decline was due to a lack of resources.  The hills had been mined to exhaustion, the land was running out of nutrients for farming, and the trade world had moved north.  Great Zimbabweans had founded two new settlements: Mutapa in the north, and Torwa in the south.  The founder of Mutapa, Nyatsimba Mutota, had been sent north to find a new source of salt, which supports the theory that the resources were drying up.  There is also a theory that the region was experiencing political instability and warfare, but that is far less supported than the resource explanation.

 

The history of Great Zimbabwe was only beginning when the population dissipated.  With the arrival of European colonialists in the nineteenth century, the speculation about Great Zimbabwe’s origins and use began.

Great Zimbabwe Closeup

Image by Wikipedia uploader Macvivo, licensed under Creative Commons.

Cecil Rhodes funded a handful of archaeologists and scholars to find non-black origins for Great Zimbabwe.  The first was J. Theodore Bent.  He had no training in archaeology, although to be fair at the time training was always ad hoc, and he determined that the structures were ancient rather than medieval.  Bent also determined that the builders were not black Africans, but rather Phoenicians, Egyptians, ancient Semitic groups, or ancient Arabian groups.  Later, he clarified his findings, and claimed only that it was an ancient Semitic or Arabian group.

After Bent finished his time at Great Zimbabwe, Rhodes hired another man with no archaeological training to be the Curator of Great Zimbabwe.  This man was Nicklin Hall, who was charged not with research or study, but only with preservation.  During his tenure at Great Zimbabwe he overstepped his job description and instigated archaeological digs that destroyed several layers of earth and all the artefacts contained therein.

This is also where the Lemba claims get interesting.  The Lemba people have always claimed ancestry from a Jewish group, and much of their culture is similar to practices found in Judaism.  Just as an example, they observe Shabbat, identify themselves as a chosen people, refrain from eating pork, practice male circumcision, and have recently placed stars of David on their gravestones.  A recent DNA study has supported this claim, finding that Lemba men share 50% of their Y-chromosome specific genes with people of Semitic ancestry – Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs³.  What’s interesting about the Lemba claim is not that it exists, it’s possible, as I mentioned above.  What’s interesting is the reason that many non-Lemba supported it.  They supported the Lemba claim because the Lemba had an ancestry that was not all black African.  Those in charge at the time were white colonists, and part of keeping citizens in a colony under control is often about denigrating their abilities.  By clearly saying that Great Zimbabwe was not created by black Africans, the colonial oppressors squashed their citizens’ pride.

The tide began to turn in the mid-twentieth century, though.  David Randall McIver studied the ruins and proposed a medieval construction date.  Gertrude Caton-Thompson studied them and determined that yes, they were created by Africans, not by a people who came from elsewhere4.  Although she is to be taken with a grain of salt because she also said that Great Zimbabwe was the product of an “infantile mind.”  All scholarship on the site since the 1950s has supported African origins and construction.

But of course, there’s more to the story.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the government of Rhodesia (the state before Zimbabwe became independent) held the position that Great Zimbabwe was built by non-blacks, and they took a hard line to enforcing it.  Any archaeologists or scholars who dissented were censored.  Paul Sinclair, an archaeologist at the site during this time, stated in an interview “Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe.”5

This covering up and denial of the African origins and construction of Great Zimbabwe went on for decades.  Professor Innocent Pikirayi, a lecturer at the University of South Africa, called it “antiquarian revisionism” in a BBC project6. The truth finally came to light as Rhodesia was speeding along the road to revolution.  After the 1979 revolution the country became known as Zimbabwe, taking its name from the archaeological site.  The national symbol is the Zimbabwe Bird, the sculpture found at Great Zimbabwe.

Now, Great Zimbabwe is a symbol of accomplishment in Zimbabwe and outside of it.  It shows the world that it is not only Europeans who are capable of creating big things and complex societies.


Go forth with your new knowledge and defeat ignorance.  I’d like to make a series about underrecognized historical and archaeological sites, so consider this part one.  When’s part two coming?  No idea.  For more historical content, check out my history category, and my history playlist on YouTube.

Endnotes:
1. UNESCO http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364
2. South African History Online http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/great-zimbabwe-case-study
3. The origins of the Lemba “Black Jews” of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1914832/
4. Ascribes Zimbabwe to African Bantus http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9505E6DB133AEE32A25753C2A9669D946895D6CF
5. None But Ourselves by Julie Frederikse http://www.bookdepository.com/None-But-Ourselves-Julie-Frederikse/9780852553299/?a_aid=JFloyd&a_bid=ba35a05b
6. BBC “The Story of Africa” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/10chapter1.shtml

 

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/10chapter1.shtml

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zimb/hd_zimb.htm

http://archive.archaeology.org/9807/abstracts/africa.html

http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/29/travel/900-year-stone-great-zimbabwe/

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/mysteries-of-great-zimbabwe.html

http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/great-zimbabwe-case-study

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1914832/

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9505E6DB133AEE32A25753C2A9669D946895D6CF

http://www.bookdepository.com/None-But-Ourselves-Julie-Frederikse/9780852553299/?a_aid=JFloyd&a_bid=ba35a05b