As one of the bog bodies discovered in Scandinavia, the Tollund Man holds distinction due to its well-preserved - and striking - appearance.
The mysterious story of the Tollund Man continues to fascinate archaeologists and scientists. Found in a bog in the Jutland peninsula in the mid-20th century, the Tollund Man lived during the Iron Age and is believed to have been the victim of a religious sacrifice. While many of the details about the Tollund Man are pure speculation, the combined efforts of Mother Nature and human researchers have led to fascinating new revelations in the decades since he was found.
The Tollund Man Was So Well Preserved, Some Believed He Was A Recent Victim
The Tollund Man, as he would come to be known, wasn't the first body found in the bog. Two others, both ancient, had been found in recent years. However, the condition of the Tollund Man was so pristine, observers thought he was a recent victim. There was even a local boy from Copenhagen who had gone missing recently, so when the Højgaard brothers contacted police in nearby Silkeborg, they told them they might have found the missing young man.
Authorities thought the remains were much older. There were no signs of recent burial, and the man was buried quite deep in more than 8 feet of peat. They contacted the Silkeborg Museum, and law enforcement and archaeological officials collectively descended on the site.
His Placement In A Bog Led Scholars To Believe He'd Been Ritually SacrificedPhoto: Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla / wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
In pagan culture, sacrifices to the gods were common. While practices and rituals varied, many believe the Tollund Man was one of these sacrificial victims. Roman scholar Cornelius Tacitus described one such ritual sacrifice: "At an appointed time all tribes meet... in a forest consecrated by their ancestors, surrounded by fear, sacred from the dawn of time. There, on behalf of those assembled, they celebrate the commencement of their barbaric cult with a human sacrifice."
Some historians believe the Tollund Man met a similar fate. Because he was found with a noose around his neck, his placement in what seems to have been a grave led P.V. Glob to argue that he was a sacrifice to a fertility goddess. Glob and others argued that Iron Age peoples may have seen bogs as paths or openings to the spiritual realm. More recently, Miranda Aldhouse-Green has reasserted this claim. The Tollund Man may have been sent with a message or sacrificed as an offering - perhaps forcefully or by his own volition.
The archaeological and historical evidence doesn't overwhelmingly support this theory, especially since relatively few bodies have been found, but it's impossible to count out such a theory.
He Had A Last Meal Of Grains, Fish, And Seeds That Might Have Been Used In Rituals
In 1950, scientists initially looked at Tollund Man's innards and put them back, but a closer look at his intestines revealed that his last meal had been a porridge made with barley, flax, and other plant materials. In 2021, researchers reevaluated Tollund Man's gut using more modern techniques, discovering in more detail the contents and quantity of ingredients of his last meal, and the state of his health.
Their findings, published in the journal Antiquity, revealed that 12 to 24 hours before his demise, he ate a porridge, likely cooked in a clay pot, made up of 85% barley, 9% pale persicaria, 5% flax, and 1% other plants, plus animal fats, most likely from fish. They also found "proteins and eggs from intestinal worms" indicating "he was infected with parasites." Porridge and fish were common foods at the the time, but the researchers were especially interested in the presence of pale persicaria seeds, because persicaria (pictured) is a weed that was threshed with grains, and usually its seeds were removed as waste. Including the seeds in the porridge could relate to ritual practices.
"As for now, we don’t know whether the use of threshing waste in the Iron Age cuisine was normal practice or whether this ingredient was only used at special occasions like human sacrifices,” said archaeologist Nina Nielsen.
The Tollund Man Was Discovered In 1950
When two men, Viggo and Emil Højgaard, were out cutting peat to use as fuel on May 6, 1950, they happened upon human remains. The Højgaard brothers lived near a bog in Bjældskovdal in the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Viggo's stepson John Kauslaund recalled how his mother Grethe took matters into her own hands:
Mother rolled up her sleeves and started digging in the mud. She dug into the cliff where people were standing cutting peat and said: "You can say whatever you want to but there's something strange here." She kept digging, and then she stuck her fingers in between the forehead and the cap on the Tollund Man's head...