The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved by P.V. GlobMisleadingly billed as a “scientific detective story,” The Bog People is more likely to be found on an introductory archaeology course syllabus than a shelf of suspenseful best-sellers. Granted, that course would be taught by an eccentric and enthusiastic professor, but for most students, his passion would not inspire similar feelings of excitement for the pursuit of ancient bodies preserved in Denmark’s peat bogs. Despite the textbook feel of the work, however, Glob intersperses enough Iron Age poetry, mythology and truly amazing photographs to hold the attention of anyone with an interest in archaeology, anthropology, or history.
The book opens under the pretext of a “long letter” written in response to the inquiries of a group of English schoolgirls. Yet as soon as he engages the reader with this encouraging tale of youthful intellectual curiosity, Glob dives into the tediously detailed story of the discovery and examination of several of the 690 “bog people” exhumed throughout Europe since the 18th century. These bodies are typically discovered by unsuspecting Danish farmers cutting rich and fertile soil (peat) out of marshy bogs. When their spades unearth entirely preserved human forms, complete with braided hair and grimacing faces, they frantically call the police who, baffled, eventually contact the nearest museum curator. At this point in his accounts, Glob inundates the reader with details of the chemical makeup, dimensions, orientation, and accessories of the bodies. He suggests implications of these details, offering explanations for everything from worn down teeth -- the Iron Age “diet consisted of vegetable foods ground on stone querns, and particles of stone became mixed with food”-- to wooden crutches found pinning down the bodies -– they were designed to hold restless spirits within the bog.
While Glob’s educated and well evidenced speculation on the historical meanings of these corpses is interesting, the true importance of the book lies in the fact that it is about much more than ancient bodies. The first four chapters showcase the effect of seeing ancient history in a vividly human form. There are several ways human corpses can be preserved over long periods of time, including freezing, desiccation, and peat bog preservation. When we encounter such a preserved specimen, history is literally placed in front of our living eyes and minds; it ceases to be relegated to pages of books and encased artifacts and suddenly takes on a human quality unlike anything that we previously considered part of the past. Through his writing and photos, Glob literally brings the reader to eye level with these still-expressive corpses. At that moment, they change from historical objects into human beings. By no other mechanism can the timelessness of the human experience be realized so intensely. Glob shows that the individual on the page endured a completely different existence in nearly every way than do contemporary humans, yet in the same instant he offers an eerie, uniquely human connection that spans eons.
Later in the book, the author examines what parts of the Iron Age lifestyle led to the violent deposit of so many bodies into these bogs. He suggests that most of the bog people appear to have died in ritual practice, specifically noting sacrifices to a fertility deity. In this discussion, Glob displays the ways that archaeology can open portholes into the past, changing our perception of the origins of religion and society.
Always cognizant of the connection between humans across the ages, P.V. Glob offers modern readers an opportunity to step back in time and look at our ancestors not as we think they lived, but as they actually lived -- and died. Although occasionally boring and certainly not the scientific thriller it’s made out to be, The Bog People capitalizes on the strange preserving qualities of peat bogs to bring ancient history to life, showing the persevering reader a different view of the past that may change his/her perspective of the evolution of human civilization.
The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved by P.V. Glob
New York Review of Books