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Nature's Time Capsules

  • Posted 04.17.14
  • NOVA

Bogs are exceptional places in nature, with the power to store vast quantities of information. A single meter of peat from a bog can preserve a thousand-year record of artifacts and organic material, including ancient bodies.

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Transcript

Nature's Time Capsules

Published: April 17, 2014

NARRATOR: 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.

This is an excerpt from the NOVA program "Ghosts of Murdered Kings."

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