Thursday, March 20, 2008

Grauballe Man

Seamus Heaney wrote of the Iron Age find of the man found in the Nebelgard Fen, near to the village of Grauballe, in Jutland, which is how this particular bog man came by his name. There were quite a few bodies found in these bogs, the two most famous being the Grauballe Man and Tollund Man.
The person who directed their excavation P.V.Glob wrote a detailed and fascinating book about the subject, and Seamus Heaney who went to Queens University in Dublin to study language and archaeology would have had his imagination captured by the vivid dramatic photographs that Glob took.
A note about Seamus Heaney's poetic language and its sparse descriptive edge will be found in the fact that he studied the Anglo Saxon language, and you have only to look at the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer or Wanderer to understand how he approached the writing of his poetry and of course his recent translation of Beowulf.
But to return to the Grauballe Man, he was found by men cutting peat, his head protruding from the peat when Glob arrived on the scene. He had been somewhat battered but the cause of death was evident, he had had his throat cut, almost severing the gullet, and there were several wounds. He may have been knocked unconscious, there was a wound at the back of his head but it could easily have been made when the men were digging for peat.
Completely naked there was no trace of any cloth, or marks of cloth on the body, he died with a look of terror on his face. His last meal, like the Tollund Man, was a vegetarian meal, composed of over a hundred different type of grains, with a small amount of bone/hair that might have got into the meal of gruel by mistake.
The date of his death is around 290bc, and it seems that his death was part of a sacrifical ritual either carried out in winter or early spring, probably mid-winter to hasten the coming of spring.
There is another explanation for the death of immersion in bogs and is to do with the Goddess Nerthus - a mother earth goddess - a religion that stretches right back into Neolithic times or so it is believed. The following extract from Tacitus's writing will give some idea of one of the rituals that is part of her myth,

In an island of the ocean is a holy grove, and in it a consecrated chariot, covered in robes. A single priest is permitted to touch it; he interprets the presence of the goddess in her shrine and follows with deep reverence as she rides away drawn by cows; then come days of rejoicing and all places keep holidays, as many as she thinks worthy to receive and entertain her. They make no war, take no arms; every weapon is put away; peace and quiet are then, and then alone, known and loved, until the same priest returns the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of the society of mortals. After this the chariot and the robes, and if you will believe it, the goddess herself, are washed in a sequestered lake; slaves are the ministrants and are straightforward away swallowed by that same lake. Hence a mysterious terror and an ignorance full of piety as to what that may be which men only behold to die"

She was probably a stature in a waggon drawn by a pair of cows/oxen, and the ritual drowning of her slaves echoes the findings of bodies in bog. Though of course female bodies were also find in the bogs, one girl with her head shaven, this was probably due to the fact that she had been punished for adultery...
Tacitus again..

The nature of the death penalty differs according to the offence. Traitors and deserters are hung from trees; cowards, poor fighters and notorious evil-livers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads; the difference of punishment has regard to the principle that crime should be blazoned abroad by its retribution, but abomination hidden....

The Iron age was primitive and barbaric, local tribes probably savage in their retribution. Tacitus paints a frightening picture and some would say a particularly romanised viewpoint, but it must be remembered that his son-in-law Agricola was somewhat daunted by the 'wild screaming' blue painted women he met at Anglesey. And I believe it is also recorded that when Boudicca stormed and ravaged Colchester and London she tied up the roman matrons and cut their breasts off - no civilised acts of war here either.
There is also evidence of the Lindow Man found in a bog in this country, that he also suffered a ritualistic threefold death, though again this is contentious, but strangulation marks on his neck of cord could well point to the famous gold torques representing twisted cord or string, a death ritual immortalised in gold.


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