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Bog men and strange decomposition


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From collecting bones, I know quite a lot about decomposition. When an animal dies, the soft tissue, sinew and organs start to break down, releasing bacteria that eventually break down everything except the bones and cartilage. Often you can find the entire skeleton lying in the same position it had been inside the body.

 But what if it happened the other way around ? What if the bones decomposed and the soft tissue remained - maybe even for thousands of years ? It may sound completely strange, but dad told me  about something he saw when he visited the National Museum of Ireland while he was giving a talk in Dublin. These are the "bog people", and what happened to their bodies is stranger than fiction.

Clonycavan Man

Here's one to start with, to show you how unusual the remains are. Clonycavan Man is 2,300 years old, but you can still see the texture of his skin and the colour of his hair, and you can tell what his face might have looked like when he was alive. He looks like a deflated balloon because while the skin is preserved, the bones are long gone.

He was discovered in 2003, and only the torso and head are preserved. He had an axe wound to the head which probably killed him., and with carbon dating he is thought to have died between 300-200 BCE (BC).

Normally with a body like this, the body is aged by looking at the long bones of the arms and legs, and using their length to work out the likely height of the deceased using special charts. In this case, scientists worked out that he was 5'2", although it's not clear how they did this using only the soft tissue.

The preserved skin helped with working out a cause of death, though. Clonycavan Man had a wound from an axe on the back of the head, and a cut across the front of the face. You can never be certain whether the wound caused the death, but it probably didn't help him live a long and happy life.

There were other things that were unusual about Clonycavan Man. He had a thin beard, a squashed nose and crooked teeth. His hair had a kind of gel in it, meaning his hair was quiffed up at the front, maybe to make him look taller. The gel would have been rare, so this may mean this man was important or wealthy. His hair also showed what he had eaten recently, which was mainly vegetables and protein, and from this scientists think he was maybe killed in the summer. This is amazing when you think how hard it is to work out a time of death for some of the animals I see that died just a few years ago.

One theory about Clonycavan Man is that he was a king who was sacrificed by his people to a god, maybe to have better weather or crops.

So how do bog people get preserved ?

The preservation is due to low temperatures, lack of oxygen and acidic water. The skin and organs are persevered but the acidic water dissolves the calcium phosphate in the bones, and tans the skin brown.

The low temperatures mean that bacteria don't begin decomposition immediately, and as soon the acidic water soaks into the body then decomposition cannot begin.

In some cases, the skeleton does remain, but in most cases it doesn't.

Oldcroghan Man

This is quite an unusual body and looks like a headless, legless boxer. It was found in June 2003 in Ireland and dates from between 365 and 175 BCE. He was tall, and in his early 20s.

The cutting of the body seemed to happen at the time of death. The body had injuries, one on the arm, and cuts under each nipple. Even stranger, he had an arm band which was preserved as well.

His lungs and stomach were so well preserved that scientists could tell he had pleurisy and that his last meal was wheat and buttermilk.

Like Clonycavan Man, OldCroghan Man was thought to be a king that was sacrificed.

The problem for museums

Museums are very careful in the way that they show human remains, and a lot of the time they try not to show human remains at all. They see it very important that human remains are treated with respect (I do as well).

The bog people are very important exhibits, though. Dad said the way the remains were shown was very respectful. Each body was in a full sized glass case, like a coffin, which helped preserve the body in the same condition by not allowing moisture out or bacteria in. Around the coffin was a wall in a spiral, so when you walked into each one, it was like a mini tomb.

Gallagh Man

The Gallagh man shows another problem for museums. He was found in 1821, put on display, but his body dried and started to disintegrate. 

His body was pinned to the bottom of the bog to stop it from surfacing and he had hazel tree branches wrapped around his neck, which was probably the cause of death. He died about 400 BC and he was thought to be about 25 when he died. He had a cape wrapped round one of his legs. 

The National Museum of Ireland now uses a special fluid to soak the bodies in before they are put on display. They have written about it in this PDF.

Baronstown West Man

This body one is much different to the rest because he was skeletonised. He was wearing a leather cloak and that he had branches in his body. He was found in 1953 and he was thought to have died in 200-300 CE (AD).

There aren't many chances to look at 2,000 year old people and look at their skin and hair. Even though I was not there, I still think that this is a really interesting process. I hope I will get a chance to visit !

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