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Heather Gill-Robinson tells of her research and interpretation of bog bodies


Heather Gill-Robinson (Courtesy Heather Gill-Robinson)

ARCHAEOLOGY’s Jarrett A. Lobell recently spoke with Heather Gill-Robinson about bog bodies. Gill-Robinson is scientific research curator for the German Mummy Project and director of science and education for American Exhibitions, prior to which she was assistant professor of anthropology at North Dakota State University. Their conversation covered many topics: Are the bog bodies all victims of ritual sacrifice? What is modern technology revealing about bog bodies that we didn’t know before? And, why are we--like Gill-Robinson herself—captivated by these ancient remains and the stories they tell?

How did you first get interested in studying bog bodies?

At some point in my undergraduate career, I took anthropology as a summer course. During that course, the instructor showed us a picture of the head of Tollund Man, from Denmark. I asked how bog bodies preserved and was told that researchers really did not know how it worked. I am one of those people that always has to find out the answers to those kinds of questions, so I started researching bog bodies to find out how the preservation processes worked, and immediately became fascinated.

What is your background and how did this lead to your current work?

I have a mixed background. I have an Honors B.A. and Bachelor of Education because I had planned to teach primary school. Eventually I did a master's degree in archaeology at a British university, a postgraduate certificate in forensic archaeology at another British university, and finally did a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Manitoba, in Canada. During my Ph.D., the opportunity came up to work with the collection of six bog bodies, including the Windeby Child, at the Archäologisches Landesmuseum Schloss Gottorf, in northern Germany, so that was my doctoral thesis research. It was an exceptional opportunity, since there are only a few people who work with bog bodies, and I am the only North American that has worked hands-on with a collection of bog bodies.

I met Dr. Wilfried Rosendahl of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, in September of 2007, just as he was preparing to open the largest exhibition of human and animal mummies that had ever been presented. Over time, I continued to work with Dr. Rosendahl, the head of the German Mummy Project, and other European colleagues and recently my position as Scientific Research Curator for the German Mummy Project was created. Now I am responsible for undertaking research on many mummies from around the world, and act a liaison for the Mummies of the World exhibition that will open in the U.S. in July 2010.

What is the most exciting and innovative research being done on bog bodies today?

For me, the most innovative bog body work is the use of medical imaging for non-destructive analysis of the bog bodies. Many bog bodies have now been CT scanned, and we can use this data to study the body in both 2D and 3D, without having to damage it in any way. In some of the recent re-analyses of bog bodies using CT scans, it has been possible to learn that some of the bones that were believed to have been fractured at the time of death, were, in fact, fractured long after death. This gives us a much clearer picture of the people involved and meant that we had to re-think the old, familiar idea that many bog bodies had been exposed to violence at the time of their death. Analyzing bog body images is very, very difficult--much more difficult than medical imaging of other kinds of mummies. Since the peat environment is acidic, it leaches most of minerals from the bones. This not only makes it difficult to tell bone from soft tissue, like skin or tendon, but the bones also bend and twist, so they do not usually resemble the proper anatomical shape that they would have in most mummies from other environments.

With the CT scanning, we can also create virtual and physical 3D models of bones and artifacts. We can create the virtual model on the computer screen and then send the file to a special "3D printer," to make an exact replica of the bone or object out of plaster or resin. This is very helpful when studying any kind of mummy, but it is especially interesting with bog bodies. The bones of bog bodies are very soft because of the chemistry of the peat, so they are easily flattened or distorted. By "printing" a 3D model of a bone, it is possible to look at the bone more carefully and figure out whether any damage or strange shapes were caused by injury or disease or were caused long after death, while in the bog.

The Damendorf Man, a very flat bog body from northern Germany, was an interesting case for imaging. It had long been believed that there were no bones left in the body, because it was so flat. With the CT scan and special medical imaging software, I was able to discover that the body still had five vertebrae in its lower back, its pelvis, and both thigh bones. The bones are only about the thickness of a fingernail, but it was very exciting to find that there were still bones in the body. I was also able to print a perfect replica of the brain from the Damendorf Man. It had shrunk to a just a few inches long and about 1/2 an inch thick, but it was well-preserved: both hemispheres were still visible.

Could you tell us a bit about the possibility of extracting DNA from bog bodies and what we might be able to learn from it?

It is very difficult to extract reliable DNA from bog bodies. This happens because of the acidic peat environment, but also because most of the bog bodies have been handled a great deal since their discovery, so any DNA samples are at high risk for contamination. It has been possible to get some preliminary DNA results for a few bog bodies, but this work has not been confirmed by a second laboratory yet, so cannot be considered reliable.

Teeth are usually the best source of DNA, but bog body teeth are also demineralized from being in the peat, and many bog bodies do not have teeth, so this is not really a good option for getting DNA from bog bodies. The next best option is a sample of bone, taken from a part of the body that (hopefully) has not been contaminated over the years by the body being handled. Since these tests are destructive, and, at this point, the chance of getting good results is very low, it is best to not sample for DNA analysis of a bog body at the moment. Technology is improving all the time and those working in the field of ancient DNA have been getting fantastic results from other types of mummies, so hopefully it will be possible to have more success with DNA testing of bog bodies in the future.


Heather Gill-Robinson examines the nearly two-dimensional Damendorf Man. (Courtesy Heather Gill-Robinson)

Can you describe your experience the first time you saw a bog body in person? Which one was it? How did it affect you?

I was hooked on bog bodies after just seeing a single photograph! I had the chance to be in Denmark for a few months in 1992. As part of that trip, I got to see Tollund Man and Grauballe Man, and found them even more fascinating than I had expected. I spent at least an hour staring at each one the first time I saw them. A couple of years later, the Silkeborg Museum, in Denmark, hosted a special exhibition of bog bodies as part of a conference on the subject. By this time, I was graduate student and I went to the conference to present some of my work. I had created a set of experiments burying piglets in peat bogs to try to learn exactly which environmental factors helped create bog bodies and how the preservation process worked. Although I did not solve the mystery of why bog bodies preserve and, in fact, that piglet field research still continues in some form today and a new project is being prepared for the future, the experimental archaeology project was a great opportunity to explore a different side of bog bodies and begin to get to know the people in the bog body research community.

Less than a decade later, I was responsible for the analysis of the six bog bodies at the Schloss Gottorf. I worked with them for six months and every single time I got to touch them, or study them closely, was special. I am very aware that these are six individuals who lived, had families, worked and eventually died. Studying them to understand who they were and how they lived was important to me. They are not "objects, they are people. I still feel this way about any mummy, or skeleton, that I work with.

What it's like to see and even touch one?

They are surprisingly light bodies. Since the bones are demineralized and the soft tissues have dried out, a bog body does not weigh very much. Although the body was very flexible when it was first found, the body hardens once it dries. The skin feels very much like an old, worn, cracked leather coat.

What is your current job with the German Mummy Project?

The German Mummy Project has a triple purpose: research, conservation, and sharing information. We develop a research plan for each mummy to answer questions such as: How old was the person when he/she died? Is this a male or female (not as easy as you might think sometimes!)? What did this person eat in his/her lifetime? Did this person have any evidence for disease or injury? The second part of the project is conservation. Mummies do not stay preserved forever when they are taken out of their original environment. We use special methods to conserve the body, so that it will not deteriorate, but will survive into the future. Finally, we share information about the mummies and how they lived through academic papers, conferences, public presentations, and museum exhibitions.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

The most exciting part of my job is any time that we get to CT scan a mummy, whether it is human or animal. If the mummy is from a culture where it is bandaged or wrapped in layers of textiles, it is always interesting to see what it under the wrappings. Even mummies who are not wrapped or clothed always reveal interesting information during the CT scan. I like taking the data from CT scan and using the medical imaging software to look at every part of the mummy--all of the bones, the organs, the skin, the hair, the teeth--to learn as much about the person as possible. For me, a mummy doesn't have to be "the first" or "the best" example of something--every single mummy is a person with a story to tell--and that is what I love about my job.

Do you have a favorite bog body?

I do have a favorite bog body! It is a body that is not very well known: the man from Rendswühren, in northern Germany. I like this body for many reasons. He is very well preserved, but until I did my research at the museum, very little was known about the man. He was found in 1871 and was autopsied by a pathologist at the time. The museum archives have very good records of the discovery, the excavation and the autopsy. After that time, he was put on display and very little was said about him until I studied him. One of the interesting things about this mummy is that his head was completely reconstructed in 1871. The skull bones were removed and the head shaped with wire and clay and a filler material. That was a huge surprise when we CT scanned him! This body is still not very well known, despite being very well preserved, and I think that he is my favorite, in part, because he is not as famous as many other bog bodies.

Would you like to share any theories about your interpretation of the meaning of bog bodies?

I think that we have to consider multiple interpretations when it comes to bog bodies. I do not believe that all bog bodies are ritual burials or sacrifices. I do believe that some bodies may be related to rituals, but I think there are many other possible explanations. Some bog bodies were probably ordinary burials. Other bodies were likely victims of crimes. Still others may have been crossing the bogs and fell in accidentally. It is very important to realize that bog bodies are not a single group and cannot all be categorized in the same way. The bodies are from a large area of northwestern Europe and cover a fairly long span of time, so it is not possible to apply a single theory to all bog bodies. It is, however, very important to understand that there are multiple possible interpretations for the bog bodies in northern Europe.

I also think that the research that is being done at the moment is helping to address some long-held misconceptions about bog bodies. For example, it is often reported that bog bodies were violently beaten or killed in violent ways, but some research that I did a few years ago showed that the same few bog bodies are given as examples in those cases. There are far more bodies without any evidence of violent trauma than most people realize. Certainly, some of them did meet violent ends, but this does not seem to have been common. New research that included analyzing the CT scans of some bodies in Denmark and northern Germany have shown that some fractures that were originally believed to have occurred around the time of death, actually occurred much later, during the time the body lay in the bog.

Do you think there are any ethical issues involved in displaying bog bodies?

I think that there can be ethical issues in displaying any type of human remains, not just bog bodies. While I believe that is important to display bog bodies, and all other mummies and skeletal remains, the displays must be respectful and should help the visitor understand about the life of the individual.

Why do you think bog bodies fascinate people?

There is so much that we do not know about bog bodies, and I think that, like me, many people like the fact there are more questions than answers about bog bodies. Every time we do more research and think we have an answer, we generate more questions. There are so many possible reasons that a person wound up in a bog and the fact that we do not have any definite answers as to how the bodies preserved--and these are just two of the questions related to bog bodies.

Jarrett A. Lobell is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.