Ghosts of Murdered Kings

Bronze age bog bodies reveal the strange beliefs of the long-vanished peoples of Europe. Airing July 2, 2014 at 9 pm on PBS Aired July 2, 2014 on PBS

  • Originally aired 01.29.14

Program Description

In the rolling hills of Ireland's County Tipperary, a laborer harvesting peat from a dried-up bog spots the remnants of a corpse and stops his machine just in time, revealing a headless torso almost perfectly preserved and stained dark brown by the bog. Archeologists recognize the corpse as one of Europe's rare bog bodies: prehistoric corpses flung into marshes with forensic clues often suggesting execution or human sacrifice. The corpse will eventually be dated to the Bronze Age, over 3,000 years ago. Many of these were victims of shocking violence, showing evidence of axe blows, hanging, and stab wounds. Like a crime thriller, NOVA follows archaeologists and forensic experts in their methodical hunt for clues to the identity and the circumstances of this and other violent deaths of bog body victims. A new theory emerges that they are those of ritually murdered kings, gruesomely slain to assure the fertility of land and people. NOVA's ancient detective story opens a tantalizing window on the strange beliefs of Europe's long vanished prehistoric peoples.


Ghosts of Murdered Kings

PBS Airdate: January 29, 2014

NARRATOR: From the depths of an Irish peat bog, emerges a mangled body from the distant past. It's one of hundreds of other eerily well-preserved cadavers recovered from bogs across Europe: ancient people from a dark and mysterious era, victims of unimaginable violence.

OLE NIELSEN (Silkeborg Museum): He was hanged.

NED KELLY (National Museum of Ireland): He was decapitated and cut in half.

NARRATOR: Centuries later, these mysterious remains raise compelling questions.

PAULINE ASINGH (Moesgaard Museum): You stand face to face with a dead man from a period so far, far away.

NARRATOR: Who were they?

NED KELLY: This is a man who did not engage in any manual labor.

NARRATOR: And why were they buried in the bogs?

OLE NIELSEN: Normal people were burned or cremated and put in an urn or pot or just a shallow pit, so this is highly unusual.

NED KELLY: The body in the bog is, in my view, is a king.

NARRATOR: Now, an international team of experts will subject this latest find to a modern scientific investigation, following the forensic evidence and historical record back in time to the world of the Celts, a mystical society ruled by warrior kings, queens and druid priests, practitioners of a macabre and brutal ritual.

MARIE CASSIDY (State Pathologist, Ireland): It's far more than sending somebody to the next world.

NED KELLY: He's drowned. He's burnt. And in other references he's stabbed as well.

NARRATOR: Why were they slaughtered? Were they despised outcasts or revered sacrifices? This is a 4,000-year-old cold case: Ghosts of Murdered Kings, right now, on NOVA.

A bog in Ireland's midlands: wet, spongy ground, composed of peat, a fossil fuel commonly burned in Irish homes and power stations. A heavy-equipment operator spots something sticking out of the bog in front of him. When he stops to investigate, he is confronted with a grisly sight. It's a human body, flattened and distorted, the brutalized corpse of a murder victim.

Within hours, a team of specialists responds. They excavate the partial body of man, hoping to find clues about his identity and how he ended up in the bog. From the color and condition of the leathery skin, it's clear that this person died centuries, if not millennia, ago. And he's not the only one.

In recent years, many other ancient victims have been found in Irish peat bogs, joining hundreds of other bodies found in bogs scattered across northwestern Europe. The bodies of these mysterious time travelers have captivated the public, and clues, preserved in their flesh, hint at a dark era of strange beliefs and gruesome practices.

One of the most provocative of these cadavers is on display in the town of Silkeborg, in Denmark: Tollund Man. He was unearthed in 1950, by peat cutters working in a bog outside the town. Carbon-dating revealed that he was around 2,300 years old, the victim of a violent death.

OLE NIELSEN: During excavation, it became very clear, very quickly, that he was hanged, because he still had a noose around his neck, very tightly. And you can almost see the furrows here grew around the neck at a very high position that indicated he was hanged.

NARRATOR: Tollund Man's body was almost perfectly preserved by the bog. And his still vivid features offer archeologists a rare chance to study pre-Christian Europeans.

OLE NIELSEN: Look here, if you see his face, it's so fantastic, and you see his wrinkles, you see his stubbled chin. And so, it's almost like a C.V., but we can't read it.

NARRATOR: The body of another brutally executed man was found just 11 miles from Tollund man. Pauline Asingh is an archaeologist and curator of Moesgaard Museum, home to Denmark's iconic Grauballe Man. He, too, is over 2,300 years old and remarkably preserved by the bog.

PAULINE ASINGH: You stand face to face with a dead man, from a period so far, far away, and he looks like you. And his nails are very well preserved, his fingertips—you can still see the small lines in them. You can see his beard when he was found. You can see the pores in his skin. It's fantastic.

NARRATOR: Grauballe Man's remains also preserve a record of his mortal injuries.

PAULINE ASINGH: He had a deep cut from one ear to another.

NARRATOR: Other European bog bodies show similar signs of violence. Huldremose Woman, also of Denmark, had cuts on her right arm, legs and feet, and may have been strangled. The mid-section of one of the Weerdinge Men, from the Netherlands, had been torn open and his guts pulled out. Yde Girl, also from the Netherlands, was strangled and stabbed to death.

These well-preserved examples show evidence of extreme violence. Why were these people killed so brutally? And will this most recent find in Ireland, also show signs of violence?

The forensic investigation begins when the body arrives at the National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin. The team of scientists and archaeologists here is led by Ned Kelly.

NED KELLY: This is a very, very, very important find. And it's a big responsibility to make sure we get the maximum information from this body. We owe it to the man lying on the table.

NARRATOR: Ned has spent a lifetime studying ancient Irish history and archaeology. Both he and his team have investigated previous Irish bog bodies, most notably Clonycavan Man, killed by three ax wounds that split his skull—and Old Croghan Man, who suffered a stab wound to his chest and was decapitated.

All of the previous bog bodies have been named for the towns where they were discovered. Accordingly, Ned names this find after the nearby town of Cashel. Now, he and the team must decipher the confusing mass of bone and soft tissue, to solve the mystery of Cashel Man, to understand who he was and why he died.

NED KELLY: The body was in a very unusual position, and it took a while to work out what it was.

NARRATOR: The head is missing, destroyed by the peat harvester. The torso is badly damaged, as well, and it's been compressed and misshapen by centuries in the bog.

MARIE CASSIDY: That looks like the front face of the vertebrae there, it does. We definitely have a good bit of tissue.

NARRATOR: It's hard to differentiate the tissues, but they find what looks like a lung.

MARIE CASSIDY: There's all the ribs there. That looks like the heart.

NARRATOR: As with any criminal investigation, the first order of business is to determine the cause of death. State Pathologist Marie Cassidy will conduct her inquiry as she would in the case of a modern death.

To begin, she visits the scene of the crime.

She speaks to Jason Phelan, the milling machine operator who came across the body in Cashel bog.

JASON PHELAN (Machine Operator): I just happened to turn at the right time and look on the left-hand side. And I saw this piece, and it was probably, maybe, six inches, triangular.

MARIE CASSIDY: And was it sticking up above the surface then?

JASON PHELAN: It was penetrating maybe this high, just above the surface in a triangular shape. So, I got out my shovel. I got out, and I checked it. And I went over and caught it like this, gently. And when I gave it a bit of a tug, two legs came up, gently out of the bog.

NARRATOR: Marie also examines the peat milling machine. Its sharp spinning blades were responsible for slicing into the body's chest.

MARIE CASSIDY: What it means is that there is a tearing motion. And that would account for the damage to the body, as it was photographed at the scene, because the surface skin had gone, and you are now looking into the guts, if you like, of the body.

NARRATOR: Her examination will help to assess which injuries were caused by a 21st century milling machine and which could have been caused by a violent attack thousands of years ago. At this early stage of the investigation, every clue is important.

MARIE CASSIDY: The more information you have, the better the outcome, the better your opinion, the better the information that you can give somebody. So, it's the same with the bog bodies: all of these experts get together and, eventually, a story will come out.

NARRATOR: But thousands of years after death, how detailed will that story be?

They need the help of modern medical technology. In the lab, the team subjects Cashel Man's body to a C.T. scan. A 3D x-ray that will allow them to peer into the body to identify bone and soft tissue and, perhaps, shed light on who Cashel Man really was.

DOCTOR: This is a young person's spine.

MAN: How young do you think?

DOCTOR: Probably 20, 25.

NARRATOR: The images from the C.T. scan help the team to understand the orientation of Cashel Man's skeleton. They can clearly see that his legs are drawn up to his chest, and his hands clasped around them. He is lying on his right side, but his head and left arm are missing, most likely destroyed by the peat harvester.

The C.T. scan also reveals two dramatic ruptures to Cashel Man's spine, where the vertebrae have been moved severely out of alignment.

C.T. TEAM DOCTOR: You can see, there, where the cord would be.

DOCTOR ORLA BUCKLEY: This is so bad.

C.T. TEAM DOCTOR: I'm just thinking in terms of trauma.

MARIE CASSIDY: Just about the middle of the chest, it looks as if, almost, the spine has been cracked open.

NARRATOR: Could this injury be the cause of death? A crippling blow to the back?

MARIE CASSIDY: You can see a nice v-shape appearance. So, that indicates major trauma.

NARRATOR: The team consults with forensic anthropologist Niels Lynnerup. He has studied other bog bodies and has determined that what look like injuries are sometimes caused long after death by something he calls "bog trauma."

NIELS LYNNERUP (Forensic Anthropologist): There are some substances in the bog which actually help in preserving the bog body. At the same time, there are also other substances, acidic substances, which start degrading some of the tissues. For instance, the bones become completely bendable, they get sort of like, basically, like wet cardboard.

NARRATOR: Lynnerup believes that the most likely explanation is that powerful acids in the bog softened the ligaments holding Cashel Man's spine together, and the slowly increasing pressure of the growing bog pushed the vertebrae out of alignment. So, what seemed at first to be a mortal injury mostly likely took place centuries after Cashel Man died.

But examining the C.T. scan reveals something else, which could only have happened near the time of death: a clean break to his right arm that shows no signs of healing. To Marie Cassidy, it's the first clear evidence that Cashel Man was the victim of some kind of violent attack.

MARIE CASSIDY: There's good evidence to say that this person was injured at or around the time of death. We can see the bones very clearly. And this bone, here, the bone that runs down towards your little finger, about half way, it's actually been halved in two. So that indicates major trauma. So, it's amazing, we are actually beginning to recreate an incident that he could have been involved in.

NARRATOR: And they find another clue: a long, thin cut across his back.

NED KELLY: That was revealed by excavation. It was down in the peat, so I don't see how that particular cut could possibly have been caused by the milling machine.

MARIE CASSIDY: Oh, I agree. It's definitely remote from it.

NIELS LYNNERUP: It's definitely not the milling machine, then. Something else.

NARRATOR: The cut suggests a slash with a very sharp blade. That evidence helps clarify Cashel Man's broken arm, which now looks to Marie like a defensive injury.

MARIE CASSIDY: I mean, the injury to your arm looks like a true injury.


MARIE CASSIDY: And if that's a true injury, you have to think of a mechanism. And the most likely mechanism, I would have thought, in those days, is you're in the middle of a fight with somebody, wielding something. And therefore it's quite likely that the death is trauma.

NARRATOR: But why? Why were Cashel Man and the other bog victims attacked so violently? What do we know about the time and place in which they lived and died?

Two thousand years ago, Ireland and northern Europe were home to the Celts, a culture of fierce, pagan warriors. Little is known of them; they kept no records. But from ancient Rome there are written accounts of savage tribes, encountered as the expanding empire's armies came into conflict with the people of Western Europe.

Around 100 A.D. the Roman writer Tacitus described Celtic villages as, "fashioned with no regard to pleasing the eye" and Celts who "ravage, slaughter and seize under false pretenses."

To the Romans, there was a word for people like these: barbarians.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN (Cardiff University): It goes back to a classical term, "barberoi," meaning people who, in a sense, speak in languages that are incomprehensible to the classical world. "Bar, bar, bar, that is the origin of it. But it had come to mean "people who are not like us, because they are not civilized, they don't write things down, they don't have organized laws, and they don't have organized structures," so they are people who are, almost, not quite human.

NARRATOR: Though Rome conquered much of Europe, the Romans never managed to invade Ireland, and today, historians caution that many of these Roman accounts are little more than propaganda, meant to demonize an unvanquished foe.

NED KELLY: The Romans have to be understood as the imperialists that they were. And the Roman world view was that the Roman way of doing things was the best way and the only worthwhile way of doing business.

NARRATOR: But there's another source of information about the Celts, which provides another perspective.

NED KELLY: In Ireland, we have a relatively huge volume of very early literary and annalistic material, mythological material that we can trawl through to see if it provides any information on the context of these bodies.

NARRATOR: These ancient myths and heroic tales were part of an oral tradition, passed from one generation to the next, until written down in the Middle Ages by Christian monks.

Their manuscripts paint a vivid picture of the pre-Christian Irish past. They describe the Celts as an ancient pagan society, ruled by kings, queens and druid priests. They tell of struggles between rival warriors and gods and goddesses who could be fickle and unpredictable, prone to meddling in human affairs and requiring bloody rites to appease them.

These ancient stories lead Ned to believe that the violent deaths of two of Ireland's most famous bog bodies, Old Croghan Man, who was stabbed in the heart, and Clonycavan Man, whose head was split open, were actually human sacrifices: victims that belong to a long, grim roll call of men, women, and children across northwest Europe. Some may have been criminals or prisoners, most were brutally murdered, all buried in the bog.

Radio-carbon-dating of most of the hundreds of previously discovered bodies places their dates of death between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D., during Europe's Iron Age, a time when ancient craftsmen had mastered iron smelting to make tools and weapons.

The team fully expects that Cashel Man, too, will prove to be an Iron Age body, from the same period. So, when they receive the radio-carbon-dating report, they are stunned. This body is older, much older. Cashel Man died 4,000 years ago, more than 1,500 years before the other Irish bog bodies, during the pre-Celtic Bronze Age.

It's a complete surprise.

NED KELLY: This body goes back to the early Bronze Age. It's much earlier than we anticipated. That's very, very exciting. It's probably the earliest fleshed bog body in Europe.

NARRATOR: Cashel Man lived at a time before Europeans had learned to smelt iron, before Tutankhamun ruled in Egypt, making Cashel Man the oldest fleshed bog body in the world.

To Ned, it is tantalizing evidence that depositing victims of violence like this in bogs was a practice that began many centuries earlier than previously thought.

To try to understand what was behind these strange burials, the team turns its attention to Cashel Man's grave, to the bog itself. The bog is a complex ecosystem with a long history and the subject of extensive study by wetland archeologist Ben Geary.

BEN GEARY (University College Cork): Bogs are incredible places. They have enormously long history. They have been part of the landscape for millennia.

NARRATOR: Bogs develop where ground water is highly acidic. Here, the ground is waterlogged and oxygen-poor. The conditions preserve dead plant matter, which accumulates to form a carbon-rich, spongy material, called "peat."

The same conditions that preserve the peat also preserve the corpses and even give them their strangely darkened color.

BEN GEARY: When we see bog bodies, the skin is, often looks like it's been heavily tanned, like if somebody spent far too long in one of these tanning booths. And that's the result of the humic acid which we have in bog water. You can probably see that. If we squeeze it, you see the brown water coming out.

NARRATOR: The bogs act like time capsules. And by cutting into the peat, Geary can expose preserved layers going back millennia.

BEN GEARY: So we have around two-and-a-half-thousand years of peat accumulation here. This is sphagnum moss. And you can see that, for a deposit that is maybe a thousand, fifteen-hundred years old, the preservation is remarkable.

NARRATOR: As dead matter accumulates, the bog slowly expands, growing around one millimeter a year. A single meter of peat can act as a time capsule, preserving a thousand-year record of plant life, ancient artifacts and bodies.

BEN GEARY: Within bogs we have this record, this memory of the past—of past environments, of past people and of past landscapes—and we just don't have that in any other environment on the earth.

NARRATOR: Details of those environments are captured in the peat, down to the microscopic level. Archaeologist Ellen O'Carroll takes core samples that hold clues about the ancient landscape. Her sample includes the area where Cashel Man was discovered but also looks deeper, further back in time.

ELLEN O'CARROLL (Trinity College Dublin): Cashel Man was found at the top of the peat bog, and he dates to 2000 B.C. So, this is a record of the 700 years before Cashel Man was deposited in the bog.

NARRATOR: By examining the contents of the core, she begins to piece together a picture of the ancient landscape and how it developed over the centuries.

ELLEN O'CARROLL: So, at the bottom of this core, we have evidence of a marginal forest where alder trees are growing. You can see the wood remains in here, and you can see the reeds just poking out here. As you get up further, you can see your eriophorum, which is your bog cotton, which is the white kind of cotton you see growing on the bogs. So, what you can't see, and what I analyze back in the lab, is your pollen. You could fit 30 pollen grains on the top of a pin. And they are so tiny, you need a microscope to identify them.

NARRATOR: Ellen's analysis of the pollen grains will reveal what sort of vegetation was flourishing around the time of Cashel Man's death.

ELLEN O'CARROLL: There's a hazel pollen grain.

NARRATOR: The type of species she detects may indicate the scale of human activity in the area where Cashel Man was buried.

ELLEN O'CARROLL: That's ash; and that's birch; more ash, birch.

NARRATOR: Ash and birch quickly grow after mature forest has been cleared. Pollen from these two species dominate the samples, indicating both ash and birch were more prevalent than they would be in an undisturbed, wild forest.

ELLEN O'CARROLL: So the presence of ash indicates that humans were around the area, they were cutting down the forest. Cashel Man died within the vicinity of a community that was quite vibrant.

NARRATOR: Further analysis of the peat core reveals more evidence of human activity: microscopic traces of charcoal, indicating fires were burnt in the area, confirmation that Cashel Man was buried close to a human settlement.

But what would this community have been like? Billy Mag Fhloinn studies Bronze Age archaeology by recreating the technology of that vanished world.

BILLY MAG FHLOINN (University of Limerick): What I try to do is look at the originals and imagine how they would have been done, using similar types of technology to what they had in the past.

NARRATOR: Billy demonstrates the smelting method that pre-Celtic Bronze Age artisans used to create everyday objects, in this case, a small ax head.

BILLY MAG FHLOINN: What we are going to do is take these bits of scrap bronze and put them in the crucible and heat up the whole thing. The idea is the metal will melt and turn to liquid.

NARRATOR: To make a high-quality casting, the bronze needs to be heated to at least 2,000 degrees. To achieve this temperature, much hotter than the temperature of an open flame, prehistoric bronze smiths probably used bellows to force air into an enclosed furnace.

Once the bronze is molten, he pours it into a clay mold then cools it by quenching in water. Finally, he breaks it open to expose the solidified metal.

BILLY MAG FHLOINN: It'll clean up and polish very nicely. And you'll be able to hammer a sharp edge onto it.

But what really comes across is how refined they had their technology. Sure their technology is at a more basic level than ours, and what they could do with more limited conditions than what we have now was astonishing.

NARRATOR: Bronze Age technology and culture in Europe provided a foundation for the Iron Age Celtic civilization that succeeded it. From Ireland and Britain in the West, to Poland and the Black Sea in the East, hundreds of diverse tribes flourished.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: The knowledge we have is of an immensely sophisticated group of people. We know of hierarchies of people, political leaders, religious leaders and other people, so, in fact, a highly stratified society. But that is silent, which has no writing, so is very difficult to get at.

BILLY MAG FHLOINN: There would have been trading centers, where you would have had something approaching an urban economy. So ideas of foreign trade and international commerce and exchange were not foreign concepts. But the backbone of the economy was agricultural production.

NARRATOR: To these Iron Age farmers, the land was sacred. Among the hundreds of gods and goddesses mentioned by Roman authors and depicted in Celtic artwork, female deities play a leading role, bringing both fertility and abundance, but also threatening drought and destruction if displeased with humans.

Might these beliefs hold a clue to the motive behind the bog body murders?

In the town of Derryville, just 30 miles from Cashel Bog, a large excavation is providing intriguing new clues to Iron Age weather patterns.

Scientists have long known that, in times of heavy rainfall, these bogs come to life and grow, but during times of drought, the mix of plants and other organisms changes. In preserving a record of life in the bog, the peat also preserves a record of environmental change.

One of the clues to understanding what conditions were like thousands of years ago are these microscopic single-celled organisms known as testate amoebae.

BEN GEARY: Testates live on the bog surface. And we know from modern studies of testate amoebae what moisture preferences different species have. So we can use knowledge of the present as key to the past.

NARRATOR: Some species of testate Amoebae prefer wet conditions, while others flourish when conditions are dry. Ben Geary exploits this difference to describe thousands of years of climate history.

BEN GEARY: Now, as bogs grow and change over time, depending on how wet or dry they are, of course, this will be reflected by the composition of communities of testate that are living in the peat.

NARRATOR: Under the microscope, Geary identifies different species of fossilized amoebae that lived thousands of years ago.

BEN GEARY: This is another species of testate. It's called arcella discoides; this is an indicator of, generally, rather wet conditions. This is Hyalosphenia subflava; this is an indicator of a comparatively dry sample.

NARRATOR: For 20 years, scientists have been collecting peat samples from a variety of bogs. Now, by cataloguing the population density of each testate species in those samples, Geary creates a detailed record of the ancient Irish climate, as it changed over time.

BEN GEARY: There has been a huge amount of work done on different bogs, different sites, in Ireland, and indeed in northwest Europe, attempting to track changes in bog surface wetness, really, over the last 5,000 years or so, or maybe even longer.

NARRATOR: The data describes periods of bad weather and difficult growing conditions that sometimes lasted decades or longer.

BEN GEARY: We tend to see that there is increasing evidence for a climatic shift, probably to a wetter and colder environment, round about the Bronze Age to Iron Age transition, so, very broadly, around the time that we do get increasing evidence of bog bodies appearing in wetlands.

NARRATOR: The most extreme shift towards a colder climate, according to Geary's research, appears in the data around 850 B.C., when rainfall increased and temperatures sharply dropped. It was one of the most significant climatic events since the Ice Age, and it lasted hundreds of years.

But how would ancient people who worshipped a goddess of fertility have dealt with what could have been long periods of failing crops and hard times?

At the Derryville site, archaeologists have uncovered another ancient link to the bogs. It's a network of finely crafted tracks, which once created a path across the spongy ground. Henry Chapman has been studying these hand-crafted walkways.

HENRY CHAPMAN (University of Birmingham): Now, this one is beautiful. It's a wickerwork hurdle, so you can see it extending quite some way along here.

NARRATOR: Some Iron Age trackways in Europe may have been used as roads for taking cattle safely over bogland, but not all of them served that function. None of the trackways uncovered at Derryville traverse the entire bog. Instead, each ends right where the marsh was at its wettest.

To some, this suggests that the wet, marshy area was a destination rather than an obstacle, but for what purpose? One clue could be the wealth of valuable objects found buried in boglands and dating from all periods.

The scale and locations of these hoards lead historians to believe that they are offerings, placed in the bog to appease ancient deities. Archeologists call them "votive offerings."

NED KELLY: A votive offering is simply a gift that is presented to a god or a goddess in return for some expected favor. It's an offering that's been made on behalf of the community.

NARRATOR: One such offering, excavated from an Irish bog, was a large container of butter, a valuable commodity 2,000 years ago. Ned Kelly believes it was an offering to the goddess of fertility.

NED KELLY: We are clearly dealing with material that has been deposited for a reason, and that reason was, I believe, the protection of the cattle herds and to ensure the continued supply of milk by the herds and proper food resources.

NARRATOR: Thousands of other ancient artifacts have been excavated from Irish bogs: feasting cups, cauldrons, engraved millstones for grinding grain. And these are also thought to be offerings to the goddess of fertility. Sacrifices like these hint at the sacred nature of the boglands of Iron Age Europe.

This evidence suggests the trackways at Derryville were mainly built for ritual.

HENRY CHAPMAN: If it doesn't make sense in any sort of practical world, then it's likely to be something that is a different sort of practical, about belief systems. It's allowing them to ask for things, to ask for help, to ask for thanks. Those are events which happen at a time of conflict, or when they require a good harvest. It's those sorts of events which are what these things are probably about.

NARRATOR: Trackways may have allowed Celtic tribes to access the bogs to commune with their deities. But why deposit a body in the bog? Archaeology in Ireland and in northwest Europe has shown that, typically, these people did not bury their dead.

OLE NIELSEN: Normal people were burned or cremated and put in an urn or pot or just a shallow pit, so this is highly unusual.

NARRATOR: Did the tribes of Ireland and Europe intend the bodies themselves as offerings? Were men, women and children deliberately murdered and then left in the bog to appease the gods? Was that Tollund Man's fate?

OLE NIELSEN: Why was he hanged? Was he a criminal? But I think the way he was put to rest in the bog, lying in a sleeping position, on the one side…somebody must have closed his eyes and his mouth, because you don't look this peaceful if you are hanged. So, I, personally, think he must have been sacrificed to a god or goddess.

NARRATOR: Do the Celtic bog bodies point to the widespread practice of ritual murder? Ned Kelly believes clues to this theory might be found on one of Europe's most precious ancient artefacts: the Gundestrop Cauldron.

NED KELLY: This is a rather elaborate cauldron, made of silver, found in a bog at Gundestrop, in Denmark.

NARRATOR: It dates to 200 B.C., the same period as many of the bog bodies. Panels ringing the cauldron depict Iron Age deities. One image shows a ritual performed in honor of the goddess of fertility.

NED KELLY: There is a figure who is holding a victim over a cauldron. This person is either being drowned in the cauldron, or perhaps he has had his throat cut, it is an image of ritual killing.

And there are other images relating to ritual killing on this object. We have one image of a male deity holding aloft two human victims, who in turn are holding aloft two pigs, who are also to be sacrificed. And on an image before me, here, which shows the goddess, lying at her breast are a human victim and a pig who have been sacrificed. So, there are a number of references on this object to human sacrifice.

NARRATOR: For Ned Kelly, the Gundestrop Cauldron offers clear evidence of human sacrifice. And this, for him, helps explain the mystery of the bog bodies.

NED KELLY: This cauldron shows the context in which those killings may have taken place in ancient Ireland. And the context is ritual sacrifice.

NARRATOR: Were the bog victims ritually killed by their own people, sacrifices to the goddess of fertility? Were they the target of a macabre practice believed to be associated with ritual murder, a practice called "overkill?"

Ned has led forensic investigations into two other mutilated bog bodies, and he believes that in Ireland, overkill was a real phenomenon.

First: Clonycavan Man.

NED KELLY: He received a blow to the face. It broke his nose. He was then set upon about the head, with an ax.

NARRATOR: Also, Old Croghan Man; forensic science revealed he, too, was the victim of a gruesome murder.

NED KELLY: He died as a result of a stab wound to his heart, probably from an Iron Age sword. He was decapitated and cut in half, and the other parts of the body disposed of elsewhere. There was far more done to this body than needed to be done to kill a man.

NARRATOR: Ned believes the extensive injuries to these bodies are evidence of overkill, and that this extreme violence served an important purpose within the ritual.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: Very often, that sacrifice is done with far more violence than is necessary to kill, as though the act itself conveys sacredness: the more violent, the more complex the killing, in a way, the more valuable the gift is. It's far more than just sending somebody over to the next world. It is highly ritualized. It's spectacle; it's theatre; it's a collective act, involving collective responsibility.

NARRATOR: The theory of overkill was developed following the Danish bog body discoveries in the 1950s. Today, it is hotly debated by experts, as they continue to study the bodies. But even if there is a similarity in the way the Danish and Irish victims died, there is an important distinction between them in how they lived.

PAULINE ASINGH: This is some of his last meal, Grauballe Man's last meal. And it has been eaten more than 2,000 years ago, and they found out there were seeds of 66 different herbs. So it's not the best; it's animal food or poor man's food. And it's interesting, because many of the other Danish bog bodies have the same last meal inside when they found them.

NARRATOR: Grauballe Man had the diet of a peasant, But what about Cashel Man, who died at least 1,500 years earlier?

The team is eager to know what Cashel Man's final meal was. Was it also a poor man's mix of seeds and grains? To find out, they first need to find his stomach. Professor Cassidy begins with a fingertip search of his internal organs, but finds the stomach has entirely decomposed.

Other Irish bog bodies have offered richer clues about social status. Forensic archaeologist Andrew Wilson analyzed hair samples taken from Clonycavan Man.

DR. ANDREW WILSON (Forensic Archaeologist): Hair is quite a unique resource in that it locks both physical information and bio-chemical information.

NARRATOR: Chemical traces of the food Clonycavan Man ate in the months before his death made its way into his hair as it grew. So we can tell something about the chemical signatures that tell us something about that person's diet.

Tests of Clonycavan Man's hair, along with an analysis of the contents of Old Croghan Man's stomach indicate that both victims enjoyed a diet rich in protein, an indicator that they were men were of high social status.

And there are other telltale signs. The hair on Clonycavan's head offers a surprising piece of evidence about who this Celtic man was and how he lived. At the University of York, Dr. Joanne Fletcher has been looking at Clonycavan's hairstyle.

DR. JOANN FLETCHER (University of York): The more that we were looking at the hair, the more we realized there was no actual knotwork in, there was no plaiting, no actual intricate styling of the hair itself, and yet the hair appeared to have been set up on top of the head in a rather tall arrangement.

NARRATOR: To hold his hair in place, Clonycavan Man was using some kind of Iron Age hair gel.

JOANN FLETCHER: When we did the analysis on the material from Clonycavan's hair, we found out it was, essentially, a vegetable plant oil mixed with a resin.

NARRATOR: Analysis showed that the resin came from a pine tree, but from a species not native to Ireland. It's resin from a tree that only grew in Southern France and Spain. Apparently, Clonycavan was wealthy enough to be able to afford imported beauty products from abroad.

And there's further evidence of how Clonycavan styled his hair: fragments of a hair tie.

JOANN FLETCHER: It's clear that this so-called "hair tie," the thing which had been used to keep the hair in place, had actually been attached, wrapped around the hair to secure it on top of, towards the back of the head, in some fashion.

NARRATOR: Fletcher offers a theory as to why Clonycavan wore his hair on the top of his head.

JOANN FLETCHER: We know he was only five feet, two inches, so the fact that he had been going to such lengths to increase his height is sort of a twist on the old platform boots for short men. Why bother with that when you can pile the hair up and fix it in place, and that adds to the height?

NARRATOR: Fletcher's theory that Clonycavan enjoyed "elevated status" does have historical precedence. Roman author Tacitus wrote about the Celts and described a particular hairstyle: the Swabian Knot.

The style can be seen on a German bog body known as Osterby Man.

According to Tacitus, elaborate hairstyles gave Celtic warriors a larger stature on the battlefield and also indicated social status. From his hairstyle, imported hair products and rich diet, Clonycavan appears to be a member of the Celtic upper class.

But why, of all people, would high-born men have been chosen for sacrifice? Searching through some of the country's oldest literary records, Ned has found a clue. The Annals of the Four Masters was compiled by Christian monks in the 1630s, but Kelly believes it reflects much earlier Irish traditions.

One account describes the excessive violence used to murder a king who is said to have ruled Ireland 1,500 years ago.

NED KELLY: We have a reference here to the death of the High King of Ireland, Muirchertach mac Erca.

NARRATOR: According to the Annals, the king "was drowned in a vat of wine, after being burned on the summit of the hill."

NED KELLY: The king is killed in a number of ways. He's drowned. He's burnt. And in other references he stabbed as well. This is referred to as the "triple killing of kings."

NARRATOR: The triple killing of kings is a common theme in the Irish Annals. Some scholars doubt the relevance of these medieval tales to the Iron or Bronze Ages, but Ned believes that stories of royal inaugurations may also hold the key to understanding the motive for putting a king to death.

One account of a medieval ceremony describes how the new king was symbolically wedded to the land over which he was to rule, in this case the Province of Connacht.

NED KELLY: Marriage quote: "Fedlimid mac Aeda meic Eogain married the Province of Connacht in the manner remembered by the old men and recorded in the old books. And this was the most splendid kingship-marriage ever celebrated in Connacht down to that day."

NARRATOR: This symbolic marriage of the king to the land itself made the king directly responsible for the success of the harvest and came with potentially fatal consequences.

NED KELLY: If it fails, he will be held accountable for failing to keep the goddess in a benevolent frame of mind, and he will be replaced, through his ritual killing.

NARRATOR: Ned believes that telltale signs on Old Croghan Man's body suggest he too was high status.

NED KELLY: His hands have been perfectly preserved. He has no callouses whatsoever on his hands. This is a man who did not engage in any manual labor.

On his arm, he had an armlet. I believe that armlet signifies he was a person of rank.

NARRATOR: Ned believes that Cashel Man, with his defensive arm wound and slash along the back, is another sacrificial victim.

NED KELLY: My conclusions are that the body of Cashel Man is that of an early Bronze Age king who has been ritually killed because he has been deemed to have been a failure in his kingship.

NARRATOR: Ned has a final clue that he believes could indicate where Cashel Man was slaughtered and why he was buried in Cashel bog.

It's a medieval map. Like the Annals, it may reflect traditions from centuries earlier, in this case, the boundaries of Ireland's ancient kingdoms and the inauguration hills on which tribal kings were crowned.

The map shows that Cashel Man and Old Croghan Man, although separated by centuries, were both buried in bogs at the foot of inauguration hills. Ned believes this is a sign both men were deposed kings, each buried in the shadow of the hilltop on which they had once been crowned.

To find out more, he's exploring the hill overlooking where Cashel Man was unearthed.

The map shows that the hill and the bog mark the boundary of an ancient tribal kingdom, part of modern day County Laois.

NED KELLY: We're just here, Crook Locha. The bog is over here, on this boundary. You can see there's a boundary, running around here.

NARRATOR: The hill's wide, flat summit overlooking the kingdom made it a place of assembly for ancient tribes performing kingship ceremonies. Ned believes they came here both to crown their kings and to remove them in murderous rituals—including Cashel Man.

NED KELLY: He, in my view, is a king who was probably inaugurated here on this hilltop. And when his kingship failed, he was ritually killed, and he's buried down there, in the boundary surrounding this inauguration hill.

It just cannot be coincidental.

NARRATOR: Since the discovery of Tollund Man and Grauballe Man in the 1950s, experts have searched for clues to explain the bog body phenomenon. But despite the best efforts of archeologists, forensic scientists and historians, the motives behind these violent acts will never be known for certain.

The only record left behind are the hundreds of mysterious bodies unearthed in Europe's wetlands, where they had lain for so long, marking eternity, buried in the bog.

Broadcast Credits

Edward Hart
John Farren
Chris Schmidt
Dan McCabe
Zoe Ellis
Mark McCauley
Brian Martin
Jay O. Sanders
Will Toubman
Doug Quade
Gareth McCormack
Eamon McKenna
Steve McLoughlin
Joe Dolan
ScoreKeepers Music
Anthony Nicholson
Bob Price
Brian Edgerton
Sophie Mautner
Leon Fee
Bernadette Ross
Des Henderson
Dermot Desmond
Billy Mag Fhloinn
Shraddha Chakradhar
Jim Fetela
Michael H. Amundson
Gordon Prenter
Michael H. Amundson
Heart Punch Studio
Adelaide and Meath Hospital
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British Museum
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Landemuseum Nature und Mensch
Niels Lynnerup
Manchester University & Manchester Hospital (only if scan used)
Moesgaard Museum
National Museum of Ireland
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Royal Irish Academy
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Ariam McCrary
Brittany Flynn
Rebecca Nieto
Nathan Gunner
Linzy Emery
Elizabeth Benjes
David Condon
Pamela Rosenstein
Laurie Cahalane
Evan Hadingham
Julia Cort
Melanie Wallace
Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell

Produced by 360 Production for NOVA/WGBH in association with BBC Four, Yesterday, UKTV and ARTE France.

© 2013 360 Production. All rights reserved

Additional Material © 2014 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.


(Tollund Man)
© 360 Production Ltd


Miranda Aldhouse Green
Cardiff University
Pauline Asingh
Moesgaard Museum
Marie Cassidy
Irish State Pathologist
Henry Chapman
University of Birmingham
Joann Fletcher
University of York
Ben Gearey
University College Cork
Ned Kelly
National Museum of Ireland
Niels Lynnerup
Forensic Anthropologist
Ole Nielsen
Silkeborg Museum
Jason Phelan
Machine Operator
Andrew Wilson
Forensic Anthropologist

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