Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tollund Man

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Preserved corpse of the Tollund Man on display at the Silkeborg Museum

The Tollund Man is the naturally mummified corpse of a man who lived during the 4th century BC, during the time period characterized in Scandinavia as the Pre-Roman Iron Age. He was found in 1950 buried in a peat bog on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, which preserved his body. Such a find is known as a bog body.[2] The head and face were so well-preserved that he was mistaken at the time of discovery for a recent murder victim.


On May 8, 1950, Viggo and Emil Højgaard from the small village of Tollund were cutting peat for their stove in the Bjældskovdal peat bog, 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) west of Silkeborg, Denmark. As they worked, one of their wives, who was there helping to load the peat on a carriage, noticed in the peat layer a face so fresh that they could only assume that they had discovered a recent murder victim, and after much deliberation among the workers, she notified the police at Silkeborg. The police were baffled by the body, and in an attempt to identify the time of death, they brought in archaeology professor P. V. Glob. Upon initial examination, Glob suggested that the body was over two thousand years old and most likely the victim of a sacrifice.

The Tollund Man lay 50 meters (164 feet) away from firm ground, buried under approximately 2 meters (7 feet) of peat, his body arranged in a fetal position. He wore a pointed skin cap made of sheepskin and wool, fastened securely under his chin by a hide thong. There was a smooth hide belt around his waist. Additionally, the corpse had a garrote made of hide drawn tight around the neck, and trailing down his back. Other than these, the body was naked. His hair was cropped so short as to be almost entirely hidden by his cap. There was short stubble (1mm length) on his chin and upper lip, suggesting that he had not shaved on the day of his death.

Scientific examination and conclusions

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The well preserved head of the Tollund Man

Underneath the body was a thin layer of moss. Scientists know that this moss was formed in Danish peat bogs in the early Iron Age, therefore, the body was suspected to have been placed in the bog more than 2,000 years ago during the early Iron Age. Subsequent 14C radiocarbon dating of Tollund Man's hair indicated that he died in approximately 400 BC. The acid in the peat, along with the lack of oxygen underneath the surface, had preserved the soft tissues of his body.

Examinations and X-rays showed that the man's head was undamaged, and his heart, lungs and liver were well preserved. Although not elderly, Tollund Man must have been over 20 years old because his wisdom teeth had grown in. The Silkeborg Museum estimated his age as approximately 40 years and height at 1.61 meters (5 feet 28 inches), relatively short stature even for the time period. It is likely that the body had shrunk in the bog.

On the initial autopsy report in 1950, doctors concluded that Tollund Man died by hanging rather than strangulation. The rope left visible furrows in the skin beneath his chin and at the sides of his neck. There was no mark, however, at the back of the neck where the knot of the noose would have been located. After a re-examination in 2002, forensic scientists found further evidence to support these initial findings.[7] Although the cervical vertebrae were undamaged (as they often are in hanging victims), radiography showed that the tongue was distended—an indication of death by hanging.[8]

The stomach and intestines were examined and tests carried out on their contents. The scientists discovered that the man's last meal had been a kind of porridge made from vegetables and seeds, both cultivated and wild: Barley, linseed, gold of pleasure (Camelina sativa), knotweed, bristlegrass, and chamomile.

There were no traces of meat in the man's digestive system, and from the stage of digestion it was apparent that the man had lived for 12 to 24 hours after this last meal. In other words, he may not have eaten for up to a day before his death. Although similar vegetable soups were not unusual for people of this time, two interesting things were noted:[3]

  • The soup contained many different kinds of wild and cultivated seeds. Because these seeds were not readily available, it is likely that some of them were gathered deliberately for a special occasion.
  • The soup was made from seeds only available near the spring where he was found.

Tollund Man today

The body is displayed at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, although only the head is original. Conservation techniques for organic material were insufficiently advanced in the early 1950s for the entire body to be preserved, therefore, the forensic examiners suggested the head be severed and the rest of the body remain unpreserved. Subsequently the body desiccated and the tissue disappeared. In 1987, the Silkeborg Museum reconstructed the body using the skeletal remains as a base. As displayed today, the original head is attached to a replica of the body.

Both feet and the right thumb, being well-conserved by the peat, were also preserved in formalin for later examination. In 1976, the Danish Police Force made a finger-print analysis, making Tollund Man's thumb print one of the oldest finger-prints on record.

Other Jutland bog bodies

Similar bog chemistry was at work in conserving Haraldskær Woman, also discovered in Jutland as a mummified Iron Age specimen. Forensic analysis also suggests a violent death, or perhaps a ritualistic sacrifice, due to presence of noose marks and a puncture wound.

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