Celebrating the Bog Man’s Last Meal

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

How people die remains in the memory of those who live on.”

– Dame Cicely Saunders, Hospice Founder

Tollund Man

Tollund Man

Dear Food is Good to Think blog readers,

This month’s blog on the Bog Man’s Last Meal may seem a bit unusual to include but it is related to some of the previous themes on spring and fall rituals from the past and provides science with a unique opportunity never before realized – dissecting the stomach and intestines of ancient bodies with the soft tissues still intact. The practice of analyzing the stomach content of deceased people is now common- place in forensic science to determine the time of death. Until the bog bodies were dated with carbon-14 technology it was very difficult to determine time of death unless it was a dignitary who died and there was widespread public knowledge and preparation of this death.

The ancient Egyptians are famous for their elaborate mummification process, but they removed the brain, organs and soft tissues from the deceased and put them in their own container so as not to contaminate rest of the body as these organs broke down. They then treated the non-perishable remains (bones, teeth) with layers or linen and linseed oil wrapped tightly and preserved for centuries in elaborate pyramids. This method was very labor-intensive, but it was unable to preserve the last meal. Fortunately, the Egyptians also painted their walls with pictures of food and agriculture so there is a record of what they ate and took to the afterlife with them.

While the bog bodies appear to have experienced an extremely unpleasant death for whatever reason, they have provided scientists with unusual insights into what they ate.

Background Information

Archaeologists were presented with a unique chance to study ancient people when bodies discovered buried in peat bogs were found to be from the Iron Age in Northern Europe (Denmark, Germany, UK, Sweden, Norway). Peat has been used as a cooking and heating fuel in Northwest Europe for centuries and peat-cutters have discovered many bodies buried in the peat over the years. Over the past 200 years a spotty record remains documenting some of the human remains peat-cutters have found buried in bogs. Whenever a new body was found, and over 2,000 have been found, the local people assumed that it was the unfortunate victim of a recent murder and would take the remains to local authorities to see if identification was possible. The remains would then be buried at the churchyard cemetery. Little did anyone know at the time that most of the victims were prehistoric!

Archaeological dating has become much more accurate over the last fifty years due to the development of radiocarbon or carbon14 (C14) dating technology. All living beings take up C14 while alive. At death, uptake of C14 ceases and decay of C14 begins at a steady and measurable rate. The amount of C14 remaining in an object can be measured and compared to the rate of loss to establish a date. While this method is not perfect, it is more accurate than relying upon dating based on the more traditional methods of archaeological dating: stratigraphy, cultural objects found, and pollen.

The oldest European bog body dates back 5,000 years ago to the Mesolithic period. Recent Indian burial bog sites in Florida date back 8,000 years (Levathes 87:406). Most date from 100 B.C. to A.D. 500 (Glob 1969:101).

One ironic example of mistaken identity was made apparent in 1983 at the Lindow Moss in Cheshire. The head of a woman between the age of 30 – 50 was found by peat-cutters who turned it in to authorities. Peter Reyn-Bardt, a widower, lived near the Moss. His wife’s disappearance in 1960 remained an unsolved mystery to the authorities. Upon hearing that a woman’s skull had been found at Lindow Moss twenty-three years after the disappearance of his wife, Mr. Reyn-Bardt immediately confessed that he had murdered her. Radiocarbon dating showed that the skull in question was dated AD 210 (+/- 80 years) so in no way could have been Mr. Reyn-Bardt’s missing wife (Brothwell 1986:12).

Peat bogs are special environments made up of partially decomposed vegetable matter. Bogs lack oxygen (anaerobic) and are highly acidic which inhibits the growth of bacteria. Because of these conditions and the generally cold temperatures of the water in bogs, the bog environment is preservative and decay of plant and animal materials is drastically slowed down. One’s skin is literally tanned and takes on characteristics of leather.

One reason why bog bodies were such a find for archaeologists is that in some cases soft tissues are remarkably well preserved. Because of this it is possible to dissect stomachs and intestines to discover what the last meals of these ancient people consisted of.

Three bog bodies (Grauballe, Tollund, and Lindow Man) have received extensive analysis from scholars. Their names came from the sites in which they were found. In part this scrutiny is due to the conditions of their deaths (murder – possibly sacrificial) but also because of the especially well-preserved condition of their bodies. In fact, it’s been said that Lindow Man was the most studied body ever found.

Paleobotanist Hans Helbaek analyzed the stomach contents of Grauballe Man (55BC) and Tollund Man (210 BC). Helbaek found that Grauballe Man’s last meal consisted of some form of “a predominantly cereal gruel, with a small amount of meat and other stored plant food but without seasonal vegetables, fruits or berries” (Brothwell 1986:90). Tollund Man’s stomach content indicated a vegetarian meal made up of “barley, linseed, ‘gold-of-pleasure’ (camelina sativa) and knotweed, with many different sorts of weeds that grow on ploughed land” (Glob 1969:33). The amount of knotweed present indicates that it was intentionally gathered rather than incidentally included during the harvesting. Other seeds present include blue and green bristle-grass, dock, black bindweed, chamomile and gold-of-pleasure (Glob 1969:33). Gruel of this nature was probably a common food item during the Iron Age. The content and quantity of seeds present could very well have been intentional since seeds have been used as nutritious “fillers” to stretch out a meal.

Both of these bodies were thought to have been sacrificial victims. Grauballe Man’s throat was slit, and he suffered skull injuries and other factures. Tollund Man died of hanging and strangulation. A number of the bog bodies met with extremely violent deaths. Lindow Man (300 BC), takes the prize with the greatest number of injuries. As Don Brothwell says in The Bog Man in describing Lindow Man’s Death, it seems to be the most complex example of ‘overkill’ seen in any bog body.

Tolland Man Overkill – skull fractures, hanging, strangulation, throat slashing

Lindow Man’s last meal was analyzed by Tim Holden and Tim Hillman. It contained more than a dozen plant species with cereals the most common (Brothwell 1986:90). In evaluating the cells, Hillman discovered that the content was probably emmer and spelt wheats, barley, and oats. There were also seeds or fragments from other plants that were probably weeds growing among the grains. Lindow Mans’ meal had a comparatively low quantity of weed seeds which indicates that the meal was made from grains that had been stored after cleaning. The grains had probably been ground in a stone quern before used in cooking due to the level of their breakdown in the gut. It has been surmised that rather than consisting of a gruel, the grains were prepared as a bread. Charred heather specimens indicate that heather was the fuel to bake the bread. Also, there were charred pieces of sphagnum moss which would have been a typical fuel for cooking.

Sun bread to welcome spring made with whole grains and seeds

Because of the lack of any seasonal berries or greens in the alimentary remains of these three men, archaeologists believe that they were killed during the winter or early spring. This would be consistent with a ritual sacrifice since the Celts were believed to offer human sacrifices during their winter and spring rituals. In fact, during the spring festival, charred rounds of bread were significant. (see Beltane, May Day)

Tollund Man

488 -300 BC

Found in Denmark in 1950

One other item may lend support to the sacrificial victim theory. Both Tollund and Grauballe Man had a large amount of ergot in their intestinal remains. Ergot is a toxin that causes intense hallucinations as well as a burning sensation of the extremities and mouth. It is a common contaminant of grains. However, it is possible that given the quantity present in Tollund and Grauballe Man and the violent nature of their deaths, that the ergot could have been given to them for humane reasons before they were executed.

Bogs were considered mysterious, sacred places where religious ceremonies and sacrifices took place. The fact that bodies of men, women, and children were buried in bogs after execution supports this though we don’t know what exactly took place during these rituals.

Archaeological evidence from pottery drawings and sediments left in vessels concerning the Iron Age diet indicate it consisted primarily of grains, little meat, milk, and cheese, and some fermented beverages. While this diet can be healthy for the intestinal tract, it is not especially varied except in the months that the seasonal fruits and greens were available. The fact that these bodies were killed at the end of winter and prior to the earth coming alive again during spring festivals is full of significance. Will we ever know what really happened to these poor souls?

One thing is certain though, unlike today’s criminals who sometimes can choose their last meal prior to execution, the bog people’s last meal was unlikely to have been a sparse mixture of whole grains by choice.

Tollund Man

Black and white photograph of a long-deceased man found in a northern European bog.

Grain gruel

  1. Pound oat, wheat, and barley grains together in a mortar and pestle.
  2. Add enough water to form a thick paste and stir in an iron pot over peat fire. Enjoy!

Recipes

Charred Barley Bread

4 cups barley flour

1 cup flour wholewheat

1 t. salt

  1. Mix the flours with the salt.
  2. Add water to the flour mixture.
  3. Make into a pliable dough and roll out in to ½ inch thickness.
  4. Cut into 8-inch discs, and bake on a hot griddle, turning the Bannocks so that they brown lightly on both sides.

Materials Needed

1 bowl

1 large spoon

Rolling pin (optional)

Stone tool

Circular form for cutting shape

Iron griddle

Spatula

Bog Man Cornell Chronicle 1990

Bibliography

Brothwell, Don & Patricia, Food in Antiquity, Thames & Hudson, London, 1969.

Brothwell, Don, The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People, British Museum Publications, London BCIB3QQ, 1986.

Collis, John, The European Iron Age, Schockend Books, N.Y., 1984.

Field, Rachel, Irons in the Fire, Crowood Press, Wiltshire SN8 2HE, 1984.

Glob, P.V., The Bog People, Redwood Burn Limited, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, U.S. Publication, Cornell University Press, 1969.

Levathes, Louise E., “Mysteries of the Bog,” National Geographic, Vol. 171, No.3, p. 397 – 420, March 1987.

Montgomery, F.H., Weeds, Frederick Warne & Co., Inc., N.Y., 1964.

Nicholson, B.E., & Harrison, S.G., Masefield, G.B., & Wallis, M., The Oxford Book of Food Plants, Oxford University Press, Ely House, London, S.1, 1969.

Stead, I.M., Bourke, J.B., & Brothwell, Don, Lindow Man The Body in the Bog, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Brothwell, Don & Patricia, Food in Antiquity, Thames & Hudson, London, 19

Brothwell, Don, The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People, British Museum Publications, London BCIB3QQ, 1986.

Collis, John, The European Iron Age, Schockend Books, N.Y., 1984.

Field, Rachel, Irons in the Fire, Crowood Press, Wiltshire SN8 2HE, 1984.

Glob, P.V., The Bog People, Redwood Burn Limited, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, U.S. Publication, Cornell University Press, 1969.

Levathes, Louise E., “Mysteries of the Bog,” National Geographic, Vol. 171, No.3, p. 397 – 420, March 1987.

Montgomery, F.H., Weeds, Frederick Warne & Co., Inc., N.Y., 1964.

Nicholson, B.E., & Harrison, S.G., Masefield, G.B., & Wallis, M., The Oxford Book of Food Plants, Oxford University Press, Ely House, London, S.1, 1969.

Ross, Anne, & Robins, Don, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, How the discovery of Lindow Man revealed the secrets of a lost civilization, Summit books, NY, Simon & Schuster, 1989,

Stead, I.M., Bourke, J.B., & Brothwell, Don, Lindow Man, The Body in the Bog, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Photograph courtesy of Sven Rosborn, courtesy of Wikimedia. “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.”

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