A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The Mysterious Bog People," at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County through September 10, proves that an almost complete lack of facts need not get in the way of a good story.
A consortium of four European and Canadian museums organized this traveling exhibition of more than 400 artifacts from the peat bogs of the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Poland--among them the seven murdered, naturally mummified corpses that are the show's macabre drawing cards. How the peoples of the northern European moors lived and died from the Stone Ages to the Middle Ages is a subject worth exploring, but the curators insist on cramming this nearly 12,000-year saga into a sexy but totally speculative framework. Undaunted by the lack of a firsthand written record or any hard evidence, the show contends that the seven corpses, and hundreds of others like them, were human sacrifices to propitiate the gods.
That theory may be correct, but the show's argument takes an unsupported leap: clearly, the moor dwellers tossed valuable weapons, jewelry, and musical instruments into the bogs as offerings; clearly other cultures sacrificed human beings to their gods. Therefore, slain corpses deposited in anything as spooky as a bog must have been sacrificial as well.
The only bit of contemporaneous historical testimony, from the Roman author Tacitus, suggests that the deaths were punishment: "Cowards, the unwarlike and those who have disgraced their bodies are drowned in swamps or bogs."
Because of chemical properties that inhibit decay, the bogs yield a rare chance to see a culture developing over several millennia. The exhibition becomes an instructive time trip in which a hunting culture gives way to a culture that produces sickles for harvesting crops and weaves woolen textiles from its flocks. The decorative arts progress from simple amber beads in the fourth millennium B.C. to a gold necklace adorned with spiraling filigree a couple thousand years later.
Most objectionable are the apparently manufactured texts used to drive home the thesis of human sacrifice. A caption for two well-preserved, tubalike horns called lurs reads: "May these sacred sounds please the Gods." For the hirsute "Red Franz," whose throat was slit in Germany between A.D. 200 and 400: "It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." These unattributed mottoes might charitably be described as poetic license, or more deservedly dismissed as bogus bog fantasy.
Factor in the exaggeratedly dim display lighting, a soundscape of spooky droning suitable for a Halloween haunted house, and contrastingly bright and colorful murals showing happy bog people living in contentment presumably purchased with human sacrifices, and you've got a show that could have been subtitled "Kitsch from the Ditch." "The Mysterious Bog People" is worthwhile for its artifacts, for the hard information it contains about bog excavation, archaeological uses of forensic science, and, yes, for the star-quality presence of the ancient, horribly dispatched dead. But instead of honoring the mystery that shrouds the religious beliefs of these people, it indulges a modern urge to abhor an information vacuum and fill it with speculation.
Mike Boehm is an arts writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY list of current exhibitions.