tollund man

This is the face of a man who died about 2,000 years ago and whose body was preserved in a peat bog in Denmark for most of that time. He was about 40 years old, short of stature for his age, and hadn’t shaved on the day of his death–you can still see his beard stubble. His last meal was a sort of thick vegetable soup which contained linseed, knotgrass and camelina. Evidently he’d been hanged. The rope, made of animal skins, was found still knotted around his neck.

The corpse was found near the village of Tollund, in Denmark, on May 6, 1950. Two men gathering peat from the bog lifted a layer of it and found the body lying there. He was so well-preserved that they assumed he was a murder victim, so they called the police. In trying to establish the time of death the coroner suggested that the body had been there a very long time, so the police called in an archaeologist. The result was this amazing find that, while providing some fascinating glimpses into the society of Scandinavia in the Iron Age, raised almost more questions than it answered.

Who was Tollund Man? Who killed him? Why? The initial hypotheses centered around him being some sort of ritual sacrifice. Various other “bog bodies” have been discovered before and since 1950, including a woman (“Elling Woman”) found near where Tollund Man was laid to rest. Most of these people died by violence, particularly hanging, though not all did. Examination of some bog bodies–the chemical properties of the peat they’re buried in tend to preserve them–have indicated traces of, surprisingly, hallucinogenic drugs. Were these people sent on some sort of spiritual “trip” and then sacrificed to gods unknown? Were they criminals executed for crimes or transgressions? We will probably never know.

Tollund Man, or what’s left of him, remains today on display at the Silkeborg Museum in Silkeborg, Denmark. Unfortunately modern science did a much poorer job of preserving him than the bog did for over 2,000 years; archaeologists made the decision to preserve only the head and let the body rot away, replacing it with an exact replica. That’s why I refer to the object of this post as “Tollund Man’s head.” But etched in this face is a story of the past that we may never understand, but which brings to us a human dimension that we can still empathize with even thousands of years later.