Tollund Man

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One of the best-known of a series of bog bodies from the Early Iron Age (500 b.c.–a.d. 1) in northern Europe is the Tollund Man. The well-preserved body was discovered during peat cutting on 8 May 1950 in Tollund Mose, near Bjælskov Dal in central Jutland, the western part of present-day Denmark. The peat cutters suspected a crime and notified the police at the nearby town of Silkeborg. The extraordinary character of the find was nevertheless soon realized, and the preeminent Danish archaeologist P. V. Glob was called in as a specialist.

The body had appeared approximately 2.5 meters below the modern surface covered by a thick layer of peat. The entire body was lifted out of the bog in a crate, and excavation was carried out at Silkeborg Museum, where the Tollund Man (at this writing) is kept. The head was treated in a pioneering way by a conservator-restorer in 1950: it was dehydrated with organic solvents followed by impregnation with wax. The body proper was reconstructed in 1987 based on the dehydrated remains and on original photos.

The deathbed of the deceased was a thin layer of peat near the sandy bottom of the peat bog; in fact this was the very surface of the bog when the body was deposited 220±55 b.c. (based on radiocarbon dating of soft body tissue). In conventional terms this dates the body to the middle part of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Tollund Mose is a so-called raised bog, which never ceases to grow and which, due to specific physical and chemical conditions, tends to preserve organic materials. Bog bodies recovered in such conditions often look as if they were buried only recently. Bacterial growth is typically stopped and nails, hair, and skin of bog bodies become tanned.

The Iron Age man recovered at Tollund was lying in a natural position of sleep on his right side, facing south, about 50 meters from the bog shore. He was naked except for an oxhide belt around his hips and a pointed cap on his head. The cap was made of pieces of sheepskin sewn together with the woolen side turned inward and fastened securely under his chin by a hide thong. His hair was cut very short. His face was clean-shaven but with stubbles of beard clearly visible on his chin and upper lip. Around his neck was a tightly tied leather strap, which had cut a deep groove in the soft skin of his neck and throat and which was found coiled over his shoulder and down his back. The man had evidently died by hanging. The carefully closed eyes, the resting position of the body, and relatively peaceful expression of the face together suggest that he was carefully deposited in the bog almost as if properly buried. Nonetheless, the circumstances are much in contrast to the normal local burial custom of the age, which involved cremation with the ashes placed under a stone circle in a cemetery.

A series of post-excavation examinations indicate that the Tollund Man was forty to fifty years old and in good health except for the occurrence of whipworms. He had eaten a purely vegetarian meal twelve to fourteen hours before his death. The porridge contained barley, wheat, and flax in addition to a large number of wild seeds, and it was prepared using bog water. Some of the seeds derive from rather rare plants, perhaps indicating that the last meal was a ritualized one.

Another strangulated body, the so-called Elling Girl, had been found in 1938 merely 61 meters from the Tollund Man. Still another body is known to have been recovered in 1927 in the same peat bog. The Elling Girl was, on discovery, wrapped in a sheepskin cape with a leather cloak round her legs, indicating that she too had been cared for. Her long hair had been gathered on top of her head and then braided and tied to the nape of the neck, probably prior to the hanging. She was about thirty years old and had died at approximately the same time as the Tollund Man.

Several bog bodies are known from northern and western Europe. Most of them date to the earlier Iron Age. The Grauballe Man was found in Nebel Mose, also in the Silkeborg region, in 1952. He had died 265±40 b.c. and had eaten roughly the same kind of meal as the Tollund Man. Before he was deposited in the peat bog he had had his throat slit so savagely that it almost severed his gullet. In addition, he had received a hard blow across one temple and one of his legs had been broken. Other bog bodies discovered on the Jutland Peninsula include those from Borremose in Himmerland, which were retrieved near a fortified pre-Roman Iron Age village; the Gundestrup cauldron, a contemporaneous piece of Celtic gilded silverwork, was found in this same area. Bog bodies from elsewhere include the Lindow Man, the Huldremose Woman, the Haraldskjaer Woman, the Roum Girl, the Windeby Girl, and the Rendswühren Man. Common to them is that they show signs of untimely and very violent deaths and that they received an extraordinary burial in a watery place. Such places were throughout prehistory in Europe believed to be inhabited by the gods, who on special occasions demanded material gifts and sometimes even human sacrifice. The Tollund Man and fellow victims offer unique possibilities of gaining insight into the sinister side of Early Iron Age communities.

In her 2001 study titled Dying for the Gods, Miranda Green suggests on the basis of archaeological and written sources that ritual killing was a rare but nevertheless constant feature of Iron Age Europe. Such extraordinary ritual activities were a cognitive response to a world that was thought to be inhabited by supernatural forces. These might be malignant or benign depending on how they were treated. Times of war and crisis especially would have motivated people to seek the favors of the gods. Victims probably were mostly prisoners and hostages of war, whose social status and standard of living varied widely, to judge from their personal appearance and nutritional state.

See alsoPre-Roman Iron Age Scandinavia (vol. 2, part6).


Coles, John, Bryony Coles, and Mogens Schou Jo⁄rgensen, eds. Bog Bodies, Sacred Sites, and Wetland Archaeology. WARP Occasional Paper, no. 12. Exeter, U.K.: Wetland Archaeological Research Project, 1999.

Fischer, Christian. "The Tollund Man and the Elling Woman and Other Bog Bodies from Central Jutland." In Bog Bodies, Sacred Sites, and Wetland Archaeology. Edited by John Coles, Bryony Coles, and Mogens Schou Jo⁄rgensen. WARP Occasional Paper, no. 12. Exeter, U.K.: Wetland Archaeological Research Project, 1999.

Glob, P. V. The Bog People. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Green, Miranda Aldhouse. Dying for the Gods. Stroud, Gloucestershire, U.K.: Tempus, 2001.

Helle Vandkilde