A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Windeby Girl and Weerdinge Couple
Volume 63 Number 3, May/June 2010
The study of ancient bodies—whether skeletons or mummies—rarely inspires the kind of fantastical stories that surround bog people. When the naked corpse of a teenage girl was found more than 50 years ago in a German bog, scholars immediately assumed that she, like other bog bodies they had seen before, was a victim of an unnatural death. She appeared to have been blindfolded, and half her head had been shaved.
Fifteen yards away, peat cutters also found the naked body of a middle-aged man who had been strangled with a hazel branch and secured in place with wooden stakes, leading to speculation that the two had been killed as punishment for an adulterous affair.
But the body of Windeby Girl—she was named for the town where her body was found—shows no signs of trauma, and evidence from the skeleton suggests she may have died from repeated bouts of illness or malnutrition. The woolen band probably slid down over her eyes as a result of the body’s shrinkage, and had likely been used to hold her hair back or to cover her eyes after death. And her “half-shaved” hair was probably the result of a natural process of decay from greater exposure to oxygen on one side of her head than the other, or of trowel damage caused during excavation.
In fact, Windeby Girl wasn’t a girl at all. Several years ago, Heather Gill-Robinson, a biological anthropologist in charge of the German Mummy Project in Mannheim, examined the skeleton, which had been removed from the Windeby bog body during conservation. “My examination of the skull and the pelvis suggests that this person was a young male,” says Gill-Robinson. “Although I’m not really sure that I was the first person to test the idea, I’m certainly the first to have explored it in the 21st century, using modern technology and perspectives.” And as for “her” lover? While Windeby Boy died in the first century A.D., radiocarbon dating revealed that Windeby Man actually lived 300 years earlier.
For decades after their discovery, similar confusion surrounded the Weerdinge Couple, two bog bodies found in 1904 in the Netherlands. The pelvis of one was preserved, making it easy to identify him as a man, while the other was identified as a woman because of its slightly smaller stature.
Their intimate pose—one body seems to be gently holding the other—touched people, and they were soon nicknamed Mr. and Mrs. Veenstra (“veen” is Dutch for bog), or Joan and Darby.
But the Weerdinge Couple is actually two men. Some wondered if this could be proof for the Roman historian Tacitus’s claim that Germanic tribes punished homosexuals by executing them and throwing them into bogs. But his supposed knowledge of this practice is at least 150 years removed from the time of the Weerdinge men’s death.
Perhaps the men were sacrificed together (one man’s stomach was sliced open at the time of his death), were comrades who had fallen in battle, or were family members buried at the same time; for now, their relationship remains uncertain.
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