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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 7, 2006


The Perfect Corpse homepage

In a morbidly fascinating new documentary, NOVA gains exclusive access to forensic scientists and local police authorities investigating two mysterious murder cases. As police unearth stunning evidence of brutal, ritualistic killings, they quickly realize they are the wrong people to solve these crimes. Archeologists step in and soon find evidence pointing to violent deaths in the prehistoric Iron Age, over 2,000 years ago. In this program, NOVA probes how these people lived and why they died.

This will be no ordinary investigation, because this is no ordinary ground. Found by accident in waterlogged Irish peat bogs, the corpses are almost perfectly preserved. Although the ancient perpetrators are now well beyond the reach of law, the bog bodies will yield fascinating secrets if modern science asks the right questions.

"The Perfect Corpse" enters the lab with experts pushing archeological forensics to its limits in an 18-month investigation. The Conservation Department of the National Museum of Ireland coordinates the project, and NOVA goes behind the scenes with key players, including archeologist Isabella Mulhall, pathologist Marie Cassidy, and conservator Patrick Doyle. Both of these bizarre cases will test every team member's experience and expertise, and there is not a lot to go on: the last body to emerge from the Irish bogs was in 1978.

Now, the team is confronted with two murdered men and an assortment of perplexing clues. The injuries to the bodies are devastating: stab wounds, broken bones, skull-crushing blows, and dismembered appendages. One of the victims has an elaborate hairstyle. On the other, a simple leather band with metal clasps adorns the upper left arm. No small detail is overlooked as NOVA examines the corpses up close in the laboratory.

Make no mistake, these are not skeletons or mummies but the intact soft tissue of people trapped in time. The fine details of fingerprints and individual skin pores show up perfectly under magnification. The team uses high-tech CAT scans to deliver 3-D body images and even probes nasal passages to search for pollen inhaled during one of the victim's last breaths. They use hair analysis to figure out diet and even magnify the edges of fingernails to assess if the victims were engaged in hard manual labor or a life of privilege. (To examine perhaps the most famous bog body of all, see Tollund Man.)

One of the two bog bodies is named Oldcroghan Man after the locale in which it was found, at the foot of a rolling hill with ritual monuments and burials dating back for millennia. Irish archeologist Ned Kelly discovers that many bog bodies are found buried along ancient Irish tribal boundaries first recorded by medieval monks. If these were not simple acts of execution, perhaps the killing sites were carefully chosen for their sacred significance and the victims offered up as sacrifices to appease the gods of antiquity.

From radiocarbon dating to paleodietary analysis, every advance in archeological forensic science is applied to the case. "The Perfect Corpse" assembles the puzzle of how two men's lives came to such violent ends, and the experts agree it is an astonishing glimpse into a vanished prehistoric era. (To learn about a famous bog-body site in the United States, see America's Bog People.)

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Peat bogs can preserve a lot more than just soft tissue, including clues to everything from the person's final meal to his or her manner of death.




The Perfect Corpse
America's Bog People

America's Bog People
Near Florida's Disney World, archeologists unearth an 8,000-year-old cemetery.

10 Ways to Make a Mummy

10 Ways to
Make a Mummy

See how peat bogs and other environments preserve corpses around the world.

Bog Bodies of the Iron Age

Bog Bodies
of the Iron Age

Examine a dozen spectacular finds on a bog-body map of Northwest Europe.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man
Meet the most famous bog body of all—and hear a Seamus Heaney poem about him.



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