Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lessons from the Bog People

If I had to conjure a coherent theme for my Winter Break reading, it would have to be “quirky non-fiction.” Cleopatra, Charlie Chan, and then this: Bog People.

It seems that nineteenth- and twentieth-century peat diggers throughout Northern Europe unearthed bodies so perfectly preserved that the local police were regularly called out to investigate possible murder. As it happens, the victims were ritually murdered – around 2,000 years ago. P.V. Glob’s The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, written in 1965 and brought back into print by the New York Review Books imprint, was the first comprehensive archaeo-anthropological look at Denmark and Germany’s bog people, and the clues to Iron Age Germani society they provide.

P.V. Glob was Denmark’s Director General of Museums and Antiquities, as well as Director of the National Museum of Copenhagen, which afforded him particular access and insight into that country’s bog people. Some of the black and white photos throughout the book struck me as totally gruesome, but also fascinating in their detail, right down to a perfectly preserved Swabian hair curl, which had been described by Roman chroniclers, but not actually seen. (**Digression: I can’t get my hair to keep a curl for one swanky evening – apparently, some enterprising hairdresser needs to come up with a peat bog treatment for the wavily-challenged.**)

Think of this book as the literary equivalent of a very comprehensive National Geographic special, and you have the idea. Glob starts by describing the individual finds in detail, but by far the most interesting part of the book is the last third, when Glob uses the mummies to piece together the day-to-day life of Denmark’s Iron Age society, as well as speculating very convincingly about the meanings of these particular deaths.

For me, it was the photo of an intricately knit bonnet that really brought the dichotomies of Iron Age society home – it’s impossible to call a society that produced something so beautiful, without a written pattern or a machine, “barbaric.” And yet ritual sacrifice was clearly part of the fabric of their lives. How much have we changed?

The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved is a good, nerdy read. Highly recommended for readers who love anthropology and archaeology, readers who enjoy nonfiction, and who enjoy reading about ancient history. The pictures are pretty graphic, though, so it’s not the kind of thing I’d leave on a table for very sensitive little children to find.

This book counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge -- if you like reading nonfiction, you should check it out over at The Introverted Reader. Thanks to Jen for hosting!


  1. I don't know that I would have looked twice at this book, but you've certainly caught my attention now! I would at least like to look at the bonnet you mentioned, and the curl! (Being a curly girl myself, I can't really relate, but I'm still curious about the curl that stood the test of time!)

    You might like Haunted Ground by Erin Hart. It's about a severed head found by men cutting peat in Ireland. It's a fictional mystery, but I remember it as being pretty good.

  2. A "good, nerdy" read, did you say? Yes, please - this sounds exactly right up my alley. :)

  3. Sounds like one for me as well! I'm always looking for interesting non-fiction and the subject sounds fascinating.

  4. Oh, I want to read this. When you describe it as a good, nerdy read how can I resist?

  5. I'm glad so many people think of nerdy like I do -- as a very good thing. It really was off the beaten track, but very enjoyable. I'm glad NYRB has brought it back into print!


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