Bodies from the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-Human Agency and the Making of 'Collective' Memory

By McLean, Stuart | Trames, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Bodies from the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-Human Agency and the Making of 'Collective' Memory


McLean, Stuart, Trames


1. Who will say 'corpse'?

   Who will say 'corpse'
   to his vivid cast?
   Who will say 'body'
   to his opaque repose?

The words are those of the Northern Ireland-born poet Seamus Heaney, from one of a series of poems published between 1969 and 1975, apostrophising both the bog landscapes of Ireland and northwest Europe and the uncannily preserved human corpses retrieved from their depths (Heaney 1975:36). (2) The poem in question, The Grauballe Man, takes its title from one such find, an Iron Age man uncovered in 1952 in the course of peat-cutting at Nebelgard Fen, a peat bog close to the village of Grauballe in Jutland, Denmark. The body is currently on display in the Moesgard Museum of Prehistory near Arhus. (see Plate 1, Photo 1).

Heaney's poem recounts a scene of simultaneous recognition and nonrecognition. The dead man confronts the modern spectator both as a contemporary presence and as a figure indelibly marked by signs of otherness: his darkened, leather-like appearance, his distorted features, the head partially flattened by the weight of peat over the intervening centuries. Heaney lingers over the details of these metamorphoses, allowing the still discernibly human form to be further transfigured through metaphor into new and fantastic shapes, suggesting the body's gradual re-absorption by the natural world to which it had been consigned:

   As if he had been poured
   in tar, he lies
   on a pillow of turf
   and seems to weep
   the black river of himself.
   The grain of his wrists
   is like bog oak,
   the ball of his heel
   like a basalt egg.
   His instep has shrunk
   cold as a swan's foot
   or a wet swamp root.
   His lips are the ridge
   and purse of a mussel,
   his spine an eel arrested
   under a glisten of mud.

(Heaney 1975:35)

2. The Bog People

The Grauballe Man and its companion poems were inspired by Heaney's reading of The Bog People, a popular work by the eminent Danish archaeologist Peter Vilhelm Glob, who was involved in the excavation and subsequent investigation of a number of peat bog corpses, including the Grauballe Man. Glob's study, first published in Danish in 1965 (and in English translation in 1968) became one of the principal channels through which information about bog bodies and other finds first reached a wider, non-academic audience. Glob's book provides an overview of archaeological discoveries in bogs across Northern Europe, along with more extended descriptions of some of the better-known Danish bog bodies. (3) Glob and later researchers have noted that many of the bog people appear to have met with violent deaths: pinned down in the peat by wooden hurdles, their skulls smashed, their throats cut or leather nooses tightened around their necks (Beuker 2002, Glob 1969:144-192, Van der Sanden 1996:154-165). This has prompted many (though not all) archaeologists to conclude that they met their deaths as human sacrifices, intended to ensure the fertility of the land for the coming year. (4) Such a view has found support from the wide variety of other ancient artefacts, including gold and other jewellery, weaponry, battle armour, drinking vessels and musical instruments, retrieved from peat bogs and widely interpreted as votive offerings to the spirits and divinities associated with the bog (Davidson 1988:62-63, 131-133). (5)

The word 'bog' derives from the Irish bogach, meaning soft or marshy ground. The surface of a bog consists of a thin layer of living vegetation, mostly sphagnum moss. Underlying it is a much thicker layer of peat, made up of a combination of water and the compacted remains of un-decayed or semi-decayed plant matter, accumulated over centuries or millennia (Feehan 1996:153-197). The peat layers contain millions of pollen grains, seeds and remains of plants and insects, providing a record of thousands of years of climate and vegetation history. The distinctive chemical properties of the bog environment are responsible too for the preservation of human remains and artefacts from the remote past. …

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