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Grauballe Man: An Iron Age Bog Body Revisited

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

Grauballe Man: An Iron Age Bog Body Revisited

Edited by Pauline Asingh and Niels Lynnerup. Pp. 351, numerous b&w and color figs. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2007. $46. ISBN 978-87-88415-29-2 (cloth).

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Wetland archaeology has revealed some remarkable discoveries, but few can rival the so-called bog bodies of northwestern Europe. These are dead human beings whose extraordinary preservation reminds us of our own mortality. They are not dry bones to be numbered, catalogued, and stored in some dusty museum vault along with thousands like them. The respect with which the authors of this report hold the subject of their inquiries comes across in the way they write; terms like “the deceased,” which one would normally encounter in the pages of a newspaper, are quite rightly used to discuss an Iron Age man discovered by peat diggers in a Danish bog on 26 April 1952. He is indeed deceased, but his death was not completely in vain, as the pages of this book make abundantly clear.

Many archaeologists of a certain age in both Europe and North America will have been attracted to the subject by reading that beautifully written book The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved (London 1977) by the Danish prehistorian Peter Vilhelm Glob. Glob was the archaeologist who supervised the lifting of, and subsequent research into, Grauballe Man, whose chance discovery created enormous public interest. Archaeology in the early 1950s faced many challenges; money was short, and even projects as prestigious as this had to be organized through cooperation among scholars and specialists, usually as favors to one another. We sometimes think today that project management, cost accountancy, and administration are the only ways to get things done. Glob’s book reminds us that there are other, rather less confrontational and always more pleasant, alternatives.

Fifty years after his discovery, the remains of Grauballe Man have been comprehensively reexamined using an almost bewildering variety of scientific techniques, all of which are clearly explained; indeed, I would recommend this report to anyone starting out in science-based archaeology. The reexamination has shown that the decisions made by Glob and his unsung conservator, Lange-Kornbak, were almost without exception correct. This was particularly true of their controversial decision to use tanning as the ultimate method of conservation. Put another way, Glob and Lange-Kornbak completed the process that had been begun by the bog. The 50th-anniversary reexamination left no stone unturned and confirmed that Grauballe Man was probably killed and laid to rest in an old peat-cutting trench, sometime in the latter part of the third century B.C.E.

Sadly, for those of us who were students in the 1960s and like a good story, one of the most publicized findings of the earlier research—that his final meal included the addition of ergot, a potent hallucinogen—now turns out to be false. Instead it seems that his throat was slit from ear to ear after a series of rather non-nutritious meals of grains and weed seeds, in which ergot naturally occurred in quantities so small as to probably not cause hallucination. Yet the picture of Grauballe Man’s execution—for that is what it was—is now clear, if nonetheless shocking. He was hit hard across the legs to bring him to his knees. As he fell, his head was grabbed, sharply bent back, and his throat was deeply cut, also severing the veins and arteries to the brain. He would have lost consciousness in a few seconds and died very shortly afterward.

The many chapters of scientific research are followed by discussions of bog and wetland archaeology in general, and there are useful summaries of other “bog bodies” from Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland. The book concludes with some thoughts on the man behind the body. This includes a remarkable facial reconstruction by the anthropological sculptor Caroline Wilkinson.

Having achieved so much, this book has also unwittingly revealed the limitations of archaeology. The fact remains that although some cognitive archaeologists would have us believe otherwise, we will never be able to record the actual thoughts that flew through the nerves of our subject’s well-preserved brain as the knife bit into his neck. I believe this matters, because archaeology is in danger of growing overly didactic. We cannot turn the clock back, just as we cannot teach everything, and we should all have the humility to recognize that some things are beyond analysis and best left to the imagination.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, learned and academic site reports often included a list of subscribers, many of whom were local professionals (e.g., doctors, priests), farmers, and landowners. The text of these early reports would reflect the subscribers’ interests not just in their breadth and scope but in the language used, which was free from unnecessary archaeological jargon. These earlier researchers realized that one need not “dumb down” to communicate with the general public. As a profession, we are losing sight of the need to tell other people about the fascination of our subject. We have become content—no, as students and graduate students we are even encouraged by those who ought to know better—to talk and write about archaeology among ourselves, using terminology clearly intended to repel the layman. Of course there are exceptions (one only has to think of Brian Fagan), but it is surely time that the wider dissemination of archaeology was not restricted to general books. Why should the public find its access hindered to the basic building blocks from which we erect our explanatory narratives?

This book successfully penetrates the ever-increasing barrier between the realms of academic and accessible report writing. It covers a huge variety of topics—many, or indeed most, of them technologically and scientifically advanced. Plainly, there cannot be a single reader who is expert in them all, yet everyone who reads its pages will discover much that is new—and with great pleasure. This is the more notable because most of the contributors are writing in what is probably their second language. This well-produced and copiously illustrated book is a major achievement and a fitting tribute to a remarkable project.

Francis Pryor
Flagfen Bronze Age Centre
The Droveway
Northey Road
Peterborough PE6 7QJ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Grauballe Man: An Iron Age Bog Body Revisited, edited by Pauline Asingh and Niels Lynnerup

Reviewed by Francis Pryor

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Pryor

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