Danish bogs have preserved some unique archaeological finds: Grauballe Man and Tollund Man, to name a few.

One theory was that these Iron Age corpses were mutilated and tortured until they died. But what could explain this particularly violent death? Did something about them set them apart from the rest of society at that time? A punishment perhaps for carrying a disease, or even being gay?

While archaeologists can’t ask the bog bodies about their sexual orientation, they can at least say that none of them were physically distinct to other Iron Age remains, says Professor Niels Lynnerup from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is one of the anthropologists behind a new analysis of Danish bog bodies.

“Based on our studies we can now say that there is nothing about these people that would distinguish them from other Iron Age skeletons. They did not have conspicuous pathologies, they were not two metres tall nor particularly small, or anything else that could physically separate them from the crowd,” says Lynnerup.

It was previously suggested that the bog bodies could have been homosexual, because they seemingly had such delicate hands.

“People thought that they mustn’t have occupied themselves with hard, manual labour, and were therefore fine men. There was even a suggestion that they were gay,” says Lynnerup.

Of course you cannot identify someone’s sexuality from their physical exterior, but Lynnerup and his colleagues can at least put this line of reasoning to rest.

Today, scientists know that the outermost layer of skin that contains the protein keratin is dissolved in acidic environments, says Lynnerup. So, the hands lack the hardened, calloused look that they probably had.

The new analyses, including x-rays, CT-scans, and 3D reconstructions, were conducted as part of a collaboration between the Danish museums, where the bog bodies are on display. The new techniques are an improvement on previous analyses.

The first Danish bog body was discovered in the 1800s.

Of the recent Danish discoveries, Tollund Man (400 to 300 BCE) and Grauballe Man (300 to 200 BCE) are the oldest. Both of them were discovered around 70 years ago and were first studied in 1950 and 1952.

Since then, they have yielded lots of information on how the fen affected their skeletons, says Lynnerup. Just as the bog can dissolve the outermost layers of skin, it can also decalcify the bones making them soft and flexible, almost like wet cardboard.

“The bones of a ‘fresh’ bog body are indeed very soft. If you didn’t know how they should be preserved, and we didn’t when some of the oldest bodies were discovered, then they would shrink and stiffen,” he says.

“When scientists studied the bodies later on, they didn’t think so much about the desiccation, - of which there really wasn't much documentation either. Instead they thought about which rare disease could have caused the bones to distort and shorten, and if these people suffered from such a rare disease, then that might explain why they were sacrificed. Today, we know that it’s really about what has happened in the bog,” he says.
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