Last meal of sacrificial bog body was surprisingly unsurprising, researchers say

A new study of Denmark’s Tollund Man reveals what he ate—and, more importantly, didn’t eat—before his murder 2,400 years ago.

By Elizabeth Djinis
Published 21 Jul 2021, 10:23 BST
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Tollund Man was hanged with a leather noose and cast into a Danish bog some 2,400 years ago.
Photograph by Robert Clark, Nat Geo Image Collection

Bog bodies are some of history’s most enigmatic murder victims: preserved in the peat bogs of northern Europe and Britain, their bodies can retain detailed facial expressions and reveal the methods by which they were dispatched some 2,000 years ago. 

Tollund Man is perhaps the best known of these victims. Discovered in 1950 by peat diggers in north-central Denmark, the Iron Age man in a wool cap still bore, around his neck, the leather noose that was used to strangle him around 350 B.C. 

But while the methods used to kill bog victims—usually blunt-force trauma, throat slashing, or suffocation—are readily apparent to archaeologists, the events that led up to their deaths remain hazy: Were these random murders or ceremonial killings? And if these were ritual sacrifices, how were these victims selected, and were they fed a special last meal or intoxicants to blunt the terror of their impending death?

Now, a new study published today in the journal Antiquity analyses in detail the last meal of Tollund Man, a meal that is remarkable simply because it was, well, unremarkable. 

Burnt porridge

When Tollund Man was discovered 70 years ago, researchers examined his well-preserved stomach and intestinal tract and determined that the middle-aged man consumed his last meal 12 to 24 hours before his death.

Now, a scientific team led by Nina Nielsen, head of research at Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, the modern “home” of Tollund Man, have revisited his gut contents with new technology. In the most comprehensive gut analysis of a bog body ever conducted, researchers recovered plant macrofossils, pollen, and other indicators to reveal microscopic evidence of food and drink. 

The main ingredients (excluding fish) in Tollund Man’s last meal are displayed in their relative quantities: 1) barley 2) pale persicaria 3) flax 4) wild buckwheat 5) sand 6) false flax 7) lamb's quarters 8) corn spurry 9) hemp-nettle and 10) field pansy.
Photograph by Museum Silkeborg

The results show that Tollund Man’s last meal consisted of a porridge with barley, flax, wild weed seeds, and some fish—fairly standard fare for bog bodies based on earlier analysis of 12 European Iron Age victims, who ate grain-based meals, sometimes with meat and berries. It’s hard for researchers to say whether this was a typical meal at the time, because most of the data on Iron Age diets comes from the well-preserved remains of bog bodies. 

Researchers were also able to determine how Tollund Man’s last meal was prepared, identifying microscopic fragments of carbonised porridge that indicate it was cooked in a clay pot, and slightly burned at that. 

“You get the idea of the average diet, but this study can actually tell you what he ate on the day he died,” says Nielsen. “That’s what makes it really interesting—you get really close to how it all happened.” 

Nielsen’s team looked into whether Tollund Man consumed any items with special properties—like hallucinogens, or other intoxicants or pain relievers—which could suggest that his meal was part of a ceremony or to alleviate suffering. Previous studies of another well-known bog victim, Lindow Man, who was sacrificed in northwest England around the first century A.D., found mistletoe in his gut. But while that plant can be used for medicinal purposes, the amount found in Lindow Man was not substantial enough to be relevant, researchers say. 

How Tollund Man’s gut content appeared under a microscope.
Photograph by P.S. Henriksen, The Danish National Museum

Another earlier study looked at the presence of ergot in the remains of Grauballe Man, a Danish bog sacrifice from the time of Tollund Man. The presence of the fungus, which attacks grain and can have severe psychoactive effects when consumed, was also too small to have had an effect on its victim and may have just been inadvertently consumed. 

Consistent with these earlier findings, no hallucinogens or other medicinal plants were found in the digested remains of Tollund Man. “We don’t have any evidence from bog bodies that indicate that they were given some kind of special medicine,” Nielsen says. 

Old bodies, new studies

There are similarities in the last meals of several bog victims that could point to a ritual significance, according to Nielsen’s research. Multiple bog bodies contain weed seeds and the threshing waste from weeds, most notably pale persicaria, commonly known as pale smartweed or curlytop knotweed. 

“[The last meals] consist of not just grains or gruel but, in the case of Tollund Man, lots and lots of different seeds and weeds,” said Miranda Aldhouse-Green, emeritus professor at Cardiff University and author of Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery. “It was important for the meal to contain a huge variety of environmental material, as though that in itself is significant.” 

Henry Chapman, an archaeology professor at the University of Birmingham, thinks the landscape of European bogs may hold part of the key to understanding why people were sacrificed in them.

In the years before the death of Lindow Man in England, the bog he was ultimately laid to rest in was becoming much wetter, which may have signified a worsening climate and loss of agricultural land for the people who lived there.

“People have suggested that they’re forming a human sacrifice because something’s going wrong in the environment,” he says. 

The next frontier for bog bodies lies in DNA analysis. At this time, the acidic environment of bogs makes recovering genetic material from the victims almost impossible, but researchers think we may soon have the technology to obtain and analyse DNA from bog victims.

Despite their remarkable preservation across thousands of years, however, archaeologists are reluctant to draw too-broad conclusions on everyday life in Iron Age Europe based on evidence from a small number of ritually sacrificed bog victims. 

“Bog bodies are unusual,” Chapman says. “That’s both their blessing, and their curse.” 

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