Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Bog people invade Canada

By Lucianne Poole

A photo of the reconstructed face of Yde Girl, a 16-year-old redhead whose body was preserved in a bog 2,000 years.
Yde Girl, a 2000-year-old found in a bog.
I pitched this story about 10 years ago to the National Post, but they turned it down. I first got interested in the subject of mummies after interviewing author Heather Pringle about her excellent book, The Mummy Congress.

The bog people are coming.

No, it's not a bad movie, but rather the culmination of years of archaeological research and an international (dare I say it?) love affair with human corpses found in European bogs. The Mysterious Bog People, an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, features bodies mummified in peat bogs – wet, dead vegetative matter.

Yde Girl

In fact, you may be familiar with the exhibition’s poster girl, a 2000-year-old red head known as Yde (pronounced Yidda) Girl. Her international popularity generated books, songs, poems, stories and two TV documentaries.

In 1897, two Dutch peat cutters dragged her leathery, withered corpse from a small bog in the northern Netherlands. A seven-foot-long banded wrapped three times around her neck indicated an untimely end. Yde Girl ended up in the Drents Museum in Assen, which now has one of the largest bog body collections in Europe. She was pretty much forgotten until almost a century later when she sparked the curiosity of an archaeologist interested in “bog bodies”.

Who are the bog bodies?

When Dr. Wijnand van der Sanden, a specialist in Iron Age Dutch villages, arrived at the Drents Museum in 1987, he realized that although the human remains on display drew a lot of interest from the public, very little was actually known about the bodies. Who were they, where did they come from, when did they die and above all, how did they end up in the bogs?

“When I joined the museum in ‘87, I soon found out that Dutch bog bodies had never been studied in a thorough way,” says the matter-of-fact van der Sanden, 49, one of the world’s five bog body researchers. “I very quickly took interest in bog bodies, also in response to the public’s questions. I couldn’t answer their questions.”

Digging up answers

Van der Sanden, who became fascinated with bog bodies as a teenager after reading The Bog People by P.V. Glob, started doing research on bog bodies. He called human geneticists, blood-typing specialists, textile experts, anthropologists, pathologists and forensic experts.

They learned that Yde Girl had died as about age 16. She had been wearing a woolen cloak and the band knotted around her neck was probably a waistband. A sliding knot had been tied beneath her left year and tightened until she asphyxiated. Her hair had been cut off on the right side of her head, and she had possibly been stabbed under the collarbone.

Bringing Yde Girl back to life

Eager to learn as much as he could about the only bog body at the Drents Museum with a head, van der Sanden contacted British medical artist Richard Neave about reconstructing Yde Girl’s head. Neave also reconstructed the head of Lindow Man, an Iron Age Briton found in a British bog in 1984.

“I also thought it would be a good way to make bog bodies more relative to visitors,” says van der Sanden, who left the Drents Museum five years ago to continue his bog body research as the county archaeologist for the Dutch province of Drenthe. “If you look at the remains, it is very difficult to imagine once-living people.”

He was right, Yde Girl was a huge hit. International interest in her and bog bodies climaxed with the release of two films (one by the Discovery Channel in 1997 and the other in 1998 by the BBC) and an exhibition of bog mummies from the Drents Museum.

A case of human sacrifice

Van der Sanden says it was quite likely that Yde Girl was sacrificed to the bogs: “The bodies are a part of the bigger picture of sacrifice, and the exhibition tries to show that.”

Van der Sanden explains that in prehistoric times, northwestern Europe became increasingly wet and peat began to form, eventually the areas were covered by bogs. People living on the high dry land between the bogs believed that the dangerous, foggy areas were inhabited by gods and spirits who controlled daily life. To keep on good terms with the gods, people deposited offerings in the bog. Written evidence from the medieval period, as well as the writings of Romans, including Tacitus, support the human sacrifice theory.

“Yde Girl is a part of a pattern of human sacrifice, but why sacrifice her?” asks van der Sanden “I don’t know. That goes for all bog bodies.”

The Mysterious Bog People exhibition closed in 2005 after appearing in five countries, but you can still view it online. Yde Girl is now back home at the Drents Museum if you feel like paying your respects.

This will be my last post for 2012. Back in January. Happy holidays and see you next year!

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