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UC Berkeley Press Release

Bog bodies in art and literature

– Karin Sanders, a University of California, Berkeley, associate professor and chair of the Department of Scandinavian, was just an infant when two well-preserved bodies from the Iron Age surfaced in peat bogs in her native Denmark. She was a teen when "The Bog People," a scientific detective story by P.V. Glob about the discoveries, became a European best-seller.

So it may be little wonder that her fascination with the likes of Tollund Man, found in 1950 and one of the most famous of all "bog bodies," led her to extensively research displays of them in museums around the world and depictions of the mysterious mummified or skeletal remains of people believed to have been sacrificed or murdered.

Sanders first planned to write an article about Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney's references in several of his works to bodies found both in Irish and Danish bogs.

But she uncovered such a wealth of information that she now is finishing a lengthy book examining how what she calls the "human time capsules" found in bogs throughout Northwestern Europe have been depicted in poetry and literature by Heaney, Belgium's Hugo Claus and American modernist William Carlos Williams, among others.

Sanders also has explored photography and scientific literature, as well as museums and traveling exhibits that display the bodies as archaeological artifacts for visitors, including touring school children.

At UC Berkeley this semester, Sanders is teaching "Word and Image," that will include reading the history of bog bodies and some of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking's "A Briefer History of Time." Sanders sees a link between the book and how the well-preserved bog bodies seem to alter the sense of time.

Considering the large turnouts for recent American museum exhibits of skinless cadavers that have been "plasticized" and the opening of a preserved corpse factory in Guben, Germany, Sanders said it's an opportune time to consider how bog people have been interpreted since their first discovery in the 18th century.

They can shed light, Sanders said, on what she calls the "elastic boundary" between the past and present, the evolution of ethics and aesthetics, and issues of race, gender, national identity, political ideology, facial reconstruction and pop culture, and what it means to be human - whether alive or dead.

These are critically important topics, Sanders said, "at a time when nations are trying to think over - and sometimes in scary ways - what it means to belong to a certain nation or culture."

One ancient historian wrote about an ancient Norse practice of tossing into the bogs the bodies of those "who defiled themselves" and broke customs of their time. Sanders said that others theorize that the bog people were probably criminals, or perhaps the chosen victims for sacrificial rituals. The Nazis, she noted, claimed most bog people were homosexuals and that their deaths were to be seen as a just end to unnatural lifestyles, a theory unsettlingly akin to the Nazi justification for the Holocaust.

What is clear from the majority of the approximately 1,000 bog people found so far, Sanders said, is that they met a violent end before ending up in the bogs. Many were stabbed, strangled, hanged or otherwise brutally assaulted.

When bog bodies were first found, their remarkable preservation led many to assume that they had died recently, likely murdered. The acid- and oxygen-free peat wetlands enable the bodies to retain skin and internal organs - but rarely the skeleton - and the acidity and cold temperatures of the bogs deeply tanned the skin and often turned the bodies a curious orange or red.

Later, thanks to radiocarbon dating and other scientific developments, authorities have been able to determine the approximate dates of death - between 10,000 years ago and as late as the 4th century A.D.

Some have taken advantage of other technical advances to help further preserve bog bodies in order to display them. Wijnand van der Sanden, a government archaeologist in the Netherlands, organized a 1996 exhibit in Denmark to exhibit almost all of the recovered bog bodies. Sanders has interviewed curators in Denmark, Germany, England and other countries where bog people have been displayed.

Literature and art developed around the bog people as early as the 1830s, she said, and continues today with most artists taking a nostalgic view of the past while others reflect the abject, grotesque bodies with depictions of them awash in blood-red paint or imaginatively placed in contemporary settings. The so-called "Weerdinge Couple," found in Holland in 1904, has been used in numerous artistic representations as illustrated by a four-meter-high sculpture by Dutch sculptor Desiree Tonnaer.

In his poetry, said Sanders, Heaney projected "into the bog bodies from Denmark and other nations the brutality of human violence and national sacrifices in Ireland."

Technological advancements have enabled cosmetic artists to conduct facial reconstructions of bog people's faces, including that of the 14-year-old Yde Girl found in 1897. Once the reconstruction was made public and the mummy "got a face," Sanders said there was a rash of poems, short stories, children's novels and even a music CD produced about the youth, depicted with blond hair and blue eyes.

"Face reconstructions," said Sanders, "are to some degree an adventure in speculation, a fiction mapped onto the countenance of someone who once lived."