The Perfect Corpse

PBS Airdate: February 7, 2006
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NARRATOR: From the swampy depths of an Irish bog emerges a body from the distant past. A second body is found, as well. Both show the same strange signs of a brutal and ritualized killing. These ancient murders are the subject of a modern scientific investigation, an investigation that goes back in time to enter the world of the Celts, the ancestors of today's Irish people.

Irish legends celebrate the Celts as an ancient mystical society, ruled by warrior kings, queens and druid priests. But since the Celts had no writing, their oral traditions from pagan times were written down by medieval Christian monks, centuries later. The manuscripts tell of heroic struggles between rival warriors and gods, but the bodies tell a darker tale of torture, beheadings and human sacrifice. Forensic studies will explore in detail how these men lived and died and why they met such a brutal and horrific end.

An 18-month archeological adventure brings us face-to-face with the disturbing truth of our distant past. Up next on NOVA, The Perfect Corpse.

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NARRATOR: Central Ireland: A gruesome find is made by a workman digging a ditch. Detective Eadaoin Campbell is summoned to investigate.

DETECTIVE EADAOIN CAMPBELL: When we got up to the crime scene tent, it was just on the far side of a drainage ditch that had been cut.

NARRATOR: The discovery was hidden under a plastic tarp.

EADAOIN CAMPBELL: We removed that, and under that we were confronted with probably one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen in my life. What I saw were the partial remains of a human being. The head was missing, the body from the hips down...lower limbs were missing. The arms extended out in front of the body in a semicircular pattern.

NARRATOR: The fingerprints are so distinct, it appears as if the murder could have happened yesterday, but with a skin like leather and no bones left in the body. It's clear that the perpetrators of this crime are now far beyond the reach of the law, for this headless torso is not the victim of a modern murder. Whoever it is has been dead hundreds or even thousands of years.

He's named Oldcroghan Man, after the region where he was found. And his body is taken from the crime scene to Dublin, 45 miles away. Here, Oldcroghan Man finds a new home in the Conservation Department of the National Museum of Ireland. With the police investigation now over, a scientific one is about to begin...

ISABELLA MULHALL (National Museum of Ireland): One, two, three, up.

NARRATOR: find out who he is, when he lived, and how and why he died. The first clue comes from where the body was found, a peat bog, a marshy area characterized by its unique chemical composition. In a normal burial, a human body quickly decomposes from the bacteria in the soil, but in a peat bog, waterlogged sphagnum moss produce a chemical reaction that tans the skin and can preserve organs, a process closely resembling the tanning of leather. Over time, the preserved body is covered with layers of moss and vegetation which turn into peat, providing a natural coffin. Up to this point, peat has kept Oldcroghan Man's body moist to help preserve it.

Archaeologist Isabella Mulhall is organizing the investigation.

ISABELLA MULHALL: The body, as you can see it here—we just have a torso and two arms—it's in extremely good condition in terms of preservation, although the body is not complete. And the body's head, as you can see, has been decapitated and severed just below the diaphragm.

NARRATOR: Oldcroghan Man appears to be a peculiar kind of mummy, the soft tissue remains of a human being trapped in time, known to archeologists as a "bog body."

Bog bodies are not a uniquely Irish phenomenon; there have been at least 2,000 reported discoveries throughout the British Isles and Northwestern Europe. Perhaps the most famous is Denmark's Tollund Man. So fantastically well preserved in the bog, Tollund Man appears to be dreaming serenely, but his appearance belies the circumstances his death. He was hanged.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN (University of Wales, Newport): He was then cut down and laid carefully in the bog, as though sleeping, in a kind of fetal position, legs drawn up, the eyes closed. He looks incredibly peaceful.

NARRATOR: Tollund Man is not alone in the violent manner of his death. Grauballe Man of Denmark had his leg broken and his throat cut with such severity he was almost decapitated. Huldremose Woman, also of Denmark, had her right arm hacked off and was stabbed repeatedly in the legs and feet. The guts of one of the Bourtanger Men, from the Netherlands had been torn open and his innards pulled out. Yde Girl, also from the Netherlands, was strangled and stabbed to death.

Many bodies, dating to around 2,000 years ago, show this same pattern of gruesome, violent death. To know whether or not Oldcroghan Man fits into this pattern, the team in Ireland will need to investigate further. They call in Marie Cassidy, Ireland's State Pathologist, to ascertain the full extent of the assault Oldcroghan Man suffered.

MARIE CASSIDY: (Department of Justice, Ireland): Hi there.

NARRATOR: Can modern forensic science shed light on this mystery from the distant past? Marie Cassidy quickly establishes that the body is male and probably in his early to mid-20s. Measuring his arm span gives her a good approximation of Croghan Man's height: six-foot-six.

MARIE CASSIDY: Six-foot-six.

ISABELLA MULHALL: Six-foot-six? That's massive.

MARIE CASSIDY: It's incredible—large man.

ROLLY READ (National Museum of Ireland): It's no wonder his hands are so big.

MARIE CASSIDY: We are being fooled because he's so squashed. You think he's a small person but he's actually a big...obviously he was a big man.

NARRATOR: But can the pathologist determine how Old Croghan Man actually died? She discovers evidence it may have been murder.

MARIE CASSIDY: There is something interesting about this wound that was discovered the other day.

NARRATOR: There's a wound on the arm and chest that looks like evidence of a stabbing.

MARIE CASSIDY: It's in roughly the right place. If, for example, we have him in this position here, if someone is coming at him to stab him, then if he put his arm up, and the guy came across with a knife, it can slice across the arm as it's going down into the chest, so it is going down.

NARRATOR: She demonstrates on Mulhall.

MARIE CASSIDY: It's going down quite steeply, which means that it will go down into the chest cavity. It will probably cut the lung and down on into the heart, so, potentially, that could be a fatal stab wound.

NARRATOR: This evidence points to murder. And there's worse to come.

MARIE CASSIDY: ...nothing on the hands I can see. And there's a rib's been sliced through.

ROLLY READ: That's a cut, is it?

MARIE CASSIDY: That's a cut. That's a nice sharp cut. And there is a slightly more irregular cut through the rib here. We've got two small symmetrical lesions, which appear to be little superficial cuts in the skin just about where the nipples, you would expect the nipples to be, might be an indication that he has been tortured.

ROLLY READ: Blimey. Ow!

NARRATOR: Tortured, stabbed to death and dismembered—Cassidy and the team establish that OldCcroghan Man suffered a horrible end. Further examination reveals more details of his gruesome story. Unlike Tollund Man, who was buried in the bog wearing a hat, no clothes were found with Old Croghan Man.

PATRICK : The skin is actually in very good condition.

NARRATOR: But around his left bicep is a braided leather arm band with metal clips. And lying next to the Croghan body at the burial site was a withy, a length of hazel branches twisted to form a rope, again, remarkably preserved.

PATRICK : Looks like quite a clean cut.

NARRATOR: When the peat is finally removed from the deepest folds in Old Croghan Man's skin, another discovery is made.

ROLLY READ: That's definite cut edges to the wound, and it pierces right through the arm.

NARRATOR: Tiny fragments from the withy are embedded in both of his arms. Sticks through his limbs are a sure sign of a bog body, for this was the method by which the body would be secured beneath the surface.

Clearly, Old Croghan Man fits the pattern of most other bog bodies, but who would execute, torture, dismember and stake a body down in the bog? And why?

The most likely suspects are the early inhabitants of the British Isles, the ancestors of the Irish, a mysterious people called the Celts. Over 2,000 years ago, the Celtic people and their pagan culture were widespread across much of northern and central Europe. Traditional Irish lore paints a picture of Celtic warriors ruling from sacred hilltop citadels, with the bogs below, an entryway to the supernatural.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: From the archaeology, we think it was a very sophisticated religious system with a number of different gods, perhaps gods associated, for the most part, with the natural world, and, indeed, the supernatural word, of course.

NARRATOR: But the Celts in Ireland never developed a written language, so much of what's known about them is based on oral tales of warrior kings, queens and heroes that were written down many centuries later by medieval monks. The tales are full of epic, often brutal combat.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: These are medieval stories, and they are written by Christians who are trying to put over Christianity as being the religion to go for, so they're going to project paganism as being, essentially, something which is bad and wild and barbarous.

NARRATOR: Can bog bodies shed light on the Celts' strange rites and practices?

Remarkably, more evidence emerges from a peat bog at Clonycavan, just 25 miles away from where Oldcroghan Man had been found. Another body is unearthed. Its forearms, hands and lower half are missing. If whole, the body would be quite short, five-foot-two inches. Though not quite as well-preserved as Oldcroghan, it is in one area much more complete.

PATRICK : Okay, what you can see here is the back of the head here, the front of the head towards here. You can see, very clearly, the eye there. Here we can see an ear.

NARRATOR: Clonycavan has a head with clearly defined features, and it's topped with a mass of hair.

PATRICK : What's here is a large matt of hair, which is completely covered in peat. The hair is extremely fine. You can see it running this way.

NARRATOR: Although Clonycavan is contorted and flattened, from time spent under the weight of the bog...

LAB TECH : ...and lift.

NARRATOR: ...he's still clearly recognizable as a fellow human being.

VALERIE HALL (Queen's University, Belfast): There's a very good chance that I am looking at the face one of my ancestors. So, when one has been involved in tracing the past, you have a genuine affection for who these people were and how they lived. One has a relationship, and one treats a person like that with great respect and genuine tenderness.

NARRATOR: Because of the exceptional rarity of these finds, the museum has decided to bring in Don Brothwell, a world authority on soft tissue human remains. When the last bog body was discovered, over 20 years ago, in 1984, it was Brothwell who oversaw the investigation.

Found in a peat bog in the north of England, Lindow Man, like other bog bodies, had suffered a gruesome and premeditated death. He had his skull smashed, had been strangled by garroting and finally had his throat cut. Lindow Man was a huge story in England. The tabloids affectionately referred to him as "Pete Moss". Brothwell never expected another case as interesting to come around.

DON BROTHWELL (University of York): It's 20 years since Lindow Man was discovered; I certainly didn't expect any more bodies to turn up. And, lo and behold, in Ireland, we have two turning up, more or less at the same time, in different localities, so it's an exciting development. And then, on the top of that, of course, they look as if they are going to be extremely interesting from a forensic point of view and so on. So this is good news from my point of view.

NARRATOR: After cleaning the Clonycavan body, the team now concentrate on his hair.

DON BROTHWELL: There might be some design in there.

ISABELLA MULHALL: It's coming from the front and swept back. Maybe that's been used to keep his hair out of his face.

NARRATOR: Although the hair is tangled and thick with peat, they can distinguish a particular style.

DON BROTHWELL: It looks like some sort of intentional preparation, doesn't it?

ROLLY READ: It does.

NARRATOR: Clonycavan Man's hair has been pulled back, to form a bun on the top of his head.

ISABELLA MULHALL: You wonder whether they used a substance, just to keep it all together, some sort of resin or something.

ROLLY READ: He had well-defined strands; it isn't just a chaotic mess of hair.

NARRATOR: But cleaning the hair uncovers something shocking.

DON BROTHWELL: Well you can see brain, possibly, in the injury there.

NARRATOR: The skull appears to have been smashed open. Incredibly, in amongst the hair and shattered skull, they discover some of Clonycavan Man's brain.

Perhaps, once again, the expertise of forensic pathologist Marie Cassidy can shed light on how Clonycavan died.

MARIE CASSIDY: We've got an injury to the back of the skull. And there's a cut, or a split in the skin, which would indicate that this is due to a blow from something heavy with a sharp cutting edge. There is a similar sort, type of injury towards the front of the head. And then we've got a third injury to the head, which is over the face, over the bridge of the nose and running under the right eye. And the nose has been literally crushed, and the bone's been broken. But, again, there is a sharp cut running across the cheekbone, under the eye. Again that tells us that the weapon used had a sharp cutting edge.

NARRATOR: One side of his head was shaved, possibly to prepare for the three lethal ax blows. From the angle of the blows, it seems he may have been kneeling in front of his attacker.

MARIE CASSIDY: Some people think that it was just today that you see all these horrible things, but it was obviously going on a long time—keeps forensic pathologists in a job.

NARRATOR: As part of the forensic investigation, Clonycavan and Oldcroghan Man will be scanned in a clinic using high resolution C.T. and M.R.I. scanners.

DON BROTHWELL: Because museums, now, are very sensitive to the whole question of how far you investigate and open bodies up and so on, it's important to use whatever non-destructive techniques you can.

NARRATOR: For the team, it's a first chance to see the internal damage to Clonycavan Man's head.

DON BROTHWELL: The stuff we see is, in fact, that: extruded brain.

NARRATOR: The scans are processed to produce a 3-D image. From the pressed and distorted skull and flesh of Clonycavan Man, computers digitally re-create his head and face. Free from the distortions caused by his time in the bog, the investigators come face to face with Clonycavan Man and see how he might have looked when he was alive. Now the team will try to discover when he lived, and, perhaps, why he died such a gruesome death.

Around 100 bog bodies are known to have emerged from the peat bogs in Ireland, the last one in 1978. That body was sent to the National Museum of Ireland, where archaeologist Ned Kelly is a curator of antiquities.

NED KELLY (National Museum of Ireland): This is the body of a young woman in her late 20s or early 30s. The burial appears to be a formal burial. The body was wrapped in a woolen cloak and interred in a bog at Meenybradden in County Donegal. We have dated the body to the end of the 16th century, 'round, say, 1570 or thereabouts.

NARRATOR: Meenybraddan Woman shows no sign of violence and, at more than 400 years old, is a relatively recent mummy, unlike another, much older example at the Museum.

NED KELLY: This is probably the best known of the Irish bog bodies. It was found in 1821, in a bog beside Gallagh Castle, in County Galway in the west of Ireland. It dates to the period around 200 to 400 before Christ. It's the body of a young man, aged about 25 years.

NARRATOR: Gallagh Man was found in a remarkable state of preservation, but without modern conservation techniques, many of his secrets have been lost. Still, it's clear his death was a violent one.

Like most bog bodies, Gallagh Man dates back to the Iron Age. It's about a thousand year period between 700 B.C. to 400 A.D., a time in Ireland and Northern Europe when the Celtic way of life took root.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: Within Europe, the Iron Age is exactly what it says: it's the period of time when people first started using iron as a commonplace metal, replacing much of the bronze that had been used before.

NARRATOR: Much of what we know about the Iron Age Celts is from the finely crafted objects they left behind. Many of these works of art survived because they were deposited in the bogs, as gifts to the gods.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: The archaeology tells us we have a relationship between these people and the gods which is signified, very often, by the giving of gifts, whether it is a precious metal sword or a piece of jewelry or an animal sacrifice or indeed sometimes even human sacrifice.

NARRATOR: Indeed, Julius Caesar, who fought the Celts in Gaul, described their grisly rituals of human sacrifice, although some of it could be propaganda. An earlier Greek author wrote that the druids, the Celtic priests, would stab a man through the gut and could foretell the future by watching his limbs convulse and blood pour out. And in Greek and Roman sculpture, Celtic warriors are depicted as fierce and formidable adversaries. Though Rome conquered much of Asia Minor, Northern Africa and Europe, the Romans never attempted a major invasion of Ireland.

Are Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man Iron Age bog bodies? And if so, what can their tortured, dismembered bodies tell us about these mysterious warrior Celts?

There is one technique that will give the team a definitive date: radiocarbon dating. By measuring the amount of radioactive carbon-14 in any once-living material, scientists can determine how long ago it died. The team chooses the withy in Oldcroghan Man's arms, for testing, and a piece of the gut from Clonycavan Man.

ROLLY READ: It's basically to get a date for when the body was deposited. It will give us a hard date, which is what we are lacking at the moment.

NARRATOR: But while they wait for the carbon-14 results, the team performs other tests which may help them discover the age of Oldcroghan Man.

X-ray fluorescence uses a beam of x-rays to reveal the chemical composition of a piece of metal—in this case, the clasps on the armband from Oldcroghan Man. The percentage of copper, lead and tin in an object, can often indicate when the metal was forged and suggest when the armband was made.

LAB TECH : Looking at it, at the moment, it looks like bronze with a small lead peak there, as well, so small amounts of lead.

NARRATOR: The results reveal that the bracelet clasps are 86 percent copper, 12 percent tin, and contain a small amount of lead.

ISABELLA MULHALL: So, effectively, the tinning would seem to indicate an early medieval date.

NARRATOR: The mix of metals in Oldcroghan Man's bracelet looks medieval, at least 1,000 years later than what they'd expect in an Iron Age bog body. They'll need to compare these results with the more reliable carbon-14 date.

ISABELLA MULHALL: Hello. Can I speak to Dr. Higham, please?

Hello. How are you? Oh, this is the big moment.

NARRATOR: Mulhall receives news that the carbon-14 dating results are about to be faxed through to her. She hopes that at least one of these bog bodies can be dated to the Iron Age.

ISABELLA MULHALL: Oh, god, unbelievable. The news is great, excellent, absolutely. These, basically, are the non-calibrated dates, so Oldcroghan bog body...there's a 95 percent probability that it's 262 to175 B.C., making it early Iron Age, so...

DIRECTOR: Two thousand, two hundred, fifty years old...yeah. And the next one?

ISABELLA MULHALL: And the Clonycavan, County Meath bog body, 392 to 201 B.C., again early Iron Age.

NARRATOR: The carbon-14 test shows that both Oldcroghan and Clonycavan Man are over 2,000 years old.

DIRECTOR: So that's 300 B.C., so that's 2,300 years old.

ISABELLA MULHALL: I'm very surprised that Oldcroghan Man is so old.

NARRATOR: They set aside the bracelet results. Perhaps their assumptions about the compositions of metals in different eras were wrong. Amazingly, the carbon-14 tests confirm the extraordinary nature of this discovery. Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man are definitely bog bodies from the Iron Age.

Now, perhaps they can help the team understand if and why the Celts, the ancestral people of Ireland, were torturing, killing and burying men and women in the bogs.

Dr. Andrew Wilson is a bioarchaeologist with an interest in hair. By analyzing Clonycavan's hair, Wilson hopes to find out what he ate before he died.

DR. ANDREW WILSON (University of Bradford): Look at his face. We can see on his upper lip the remains of short stubble and slightly longer stubble, just under his chin.

NARRATOR: Hair is biomaterial that grows at a relatively constant rate, about half an inch per month.

Using a scanning electron microscope, Wilson can analyze the surface of a single strand in extraordinary detail. The preservation of the hair is a testament to the preservative chemicals in the peat bog.

ANDREW WILSON: You are seeing here an image of Clonycavan's scalp hair. And if we move in magnification, you start to see some of the detail of that fiber.

NARRATOR: But in order to learn more about Clonycavan Man's diet, Wilson will need to subject a sample to a destructive process. This single strand of hair, about eight inches long, is cut into equal lengths. Then each segment is analyzed for its chemical composition and then compared to each other.

ANDREW WILSON: Working from the root end of the fiber, you can build up a timeline of diet and, potentially, seasonal variation in diet. You may be able to tell what time of year a person died, what types of food they were eating.

NARRATOR: The findings show that Clonycavan Man had a healthy diet, rich in vegetables, especially during the months leading up to his death.

The hair on Clonycavan's head offers more evidence about how this Celtic man lived and, perhaps, why he died such a violent death. At the University of York, Dr. Joann 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 knot-work 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 keep his hair in place, Clonycavan Man was using some sort 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: Results showed that the resin was from a pine tree, but from a species not native to Ireland. It's resin from a type of pine tree that only grew in Southern France and Spain. It appears that in 300 B.C., Clonycavan was wealthy enough to import beauty products from abroad.

In addition to resin hair gel, 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 on why Clonycavan wore his hair up.

JOANN FLETCHER: We know he was only 5'2" 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: In fact Fletcher's "elevated status" theory does have historical credibility. Tacitus, a Roman scholar wrote about the Celts and describes a particular hairstyle: the Swabian Knot. That style survives on a German bog body now known as Osterby Man.

Tacitus reports that elaborate hairstyles gave Celtic warriors a larger presence on the battlefield and served as a badge of social status. From his hairstyle, imported hair products and good diet, Clonycavan appears to be a member of the Celtic upper class.

But what about Oldcroghan Man?

While hair can provide a wealth of information relating to Celtic lifestyle, unfortunately none can be found on Oldcroghan's headless torso. Professor Don Brothwell instead looks for clues in his remarkably preserved stomach. Here he hopes to find remains from Oldcroghan's final meal.

DON BROTHWELL: We have used old techniques, just looking at the chewed up remains of the food, and that means looking at the actual plant tissue in the stomach contents. In the case of Oldcroghan Man, it seems to be mainly wheat that was consumed.

NARRATOR: But, using more advanced techniques, Brothwell is able to find more than just solid remains.

DON BROTHWELL: We have advanced these studies by looking at the chemistry of the foods, as well, and so we have been able to reveal, for the first time, using chemical analytical techniques, that the individual was taking in some sort of milk or milk products, as well as the cereals in his last meal.

NARRATOR: A diet of grains and milk products, and the absence of autumn fruits or leafy summer vegetables, may suggest that Oldcroghan Man died in winter or spring. Bioarchaeologist Wilson searches for clues in Oldcroghan's fingernails.

ANDREW WILSON: The nice thing with Oldcroghan Man is that he has beautifully preserved fingernails, and we know the fingernail grows at roughly three millimeters a month. With Oldcroghan Man, we are dealing with roughly six months of growth.

NARRATOR: The chemical composition of nails is directly affected by diet. Wilson, by measuring the amount of nitrogen in Oldcroghan Man's nails, will be able to discover how much protein Oldcroghan Man was eating in the last six months of his life.

ANDREW WILSON: And what we see is that the nitrogen values tell us a little bit about the protein component of diet, so the dairy components, the meat components in diet...we start to see that Oldcroghan Man was getting more of those components closer to death.

NARRATOR: In the Iron Age as winter approached, meat became the dominant source of food. Based on the nitrogen values in Oldcroghan's nails, it appears he died in winter.

A winter burial in a cold bog may also account for his extremely well-preserved skin tissue. And further evidence for a winter death comes from Roman sources, who report the Celts observed winter festivals with gory ceremonies including, perhaps, human sacrifice.

But the season of death is not all the nails can reveal. They also provide clues of Oldcroghan Man's lifestyle, how he might have used his hands.

ANDREW WILSON: What we are interested in is what sort of lifestyle Old Croghan Man had. What I might expect to see here, under the electron microscope, if we were dealing with heavy use and heavy wear, would be striations, little lines and little dents on the surface. The polished nature, the burnishing to the margins of the nail may suggest that we are dealing with an individual that has quite well manicured nails.

Oldcroghan's nails show no signs of wear and tear. This suggests that he might have been an individual of high status and didn't perform any manual labor. Curiously, finely manicured fingernails, styled hair, and a good diet are a commonly occurring feature among other European Iron Age bog bodies.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: If we look at the bog bodies, for example, where the soft tissue remains, we do sometimes have an inkling, by looking at the hands and the feet, that these people were not engaged in manual labor. They were special. They were well-nourished. They were perhaps different and of higher esteem than others.

NARRATOR: Are individuals of high status being singled out to be brutally tortured, murdered and staked to the bottom of a bog? The team reviews the evidence.

Both Oldcroghan and Clonycavan Man were Celts who lived around 300 B.C., during the Iron Age period of ancient Ireland. Oldcroghan, at 6-foot-6 was unusually tall. Clonycavan at 5-foot-2 was fairly short. Both men were upper class.

We learn this in Clonycavan from his hair which reveals a rich diet and a style and grooming that hint that he was a warrior or of high social status. And headless Oldcroghan Man's high status is revealed in his manicured nails and hands that show no evidence of manual labor. The remains in his stomach show he also ate a rich diet and was well-fed before his death, like Clonycavan Man.

Both men were killed with excessive violence, in what looks like premeditated assaults: Clonycavan with three massive blows to the head shattering his skull, and Old Croghan tortured, with cuts to his nipples, fatally stabbed and dismembered. His head and lower limbs have still not been found.

Shortly after dying, both men were carefully placed in the swampy bog, and, as evidenced by the hazel rope threaded through Old Croghan's arm, and like other Iron Age bog bodies, staked to the bottom of the bog. There, the chemicals in the peat preserved their brutalized bodies until they were discovered, about 25 miles from each other, over 2,000 years later.

Why did these Iron Age men die such violent deaths? Was there a connection between their social status and their murders? Could these carefully choreographed deaths and bog burials have been a form of capital punishment? Or is it possible these early Europeans were practicing a religious rite involving human sacrifice?

Archaeologist Tim Taylor has been pouring over evidence surrounding the deaths of Old Croghan and Clonycavan Man. He suggests the way they were killed, the sheer brutality of their deaths, is a clue to why they were killed.

TIM TAYLOR (University of Bradford): The deaths that the bog bodies themselves have been subjected to, I don't think can be considered honorable deaths in any way. Some people, I think, have thought about them as being sacrifices to the gods, perhaps. But I find that hard to believe, and I think we should look, rather, at the issue of ritualized judicial killing.

NARRATOR: Taylor believes the bog bodies were executed for crimes against society. To support his case he calls on the Roman historian, Tacitus, a contemporary of the Celts.

TIM TAYLOR: Punishments varied according to the nature of the crime, so traitors who were political criminals would be hung, to be on display to others as a warning not to do that, whereas he says that those who commit shameful crimes, those are crimes against honor, would be put into a bog and pinned down with wicker hurdles out of sight of society.

NARRATOR: Shameful crimes included cowardice, laziness and sexual deviance. To the Celts, Taylor believes the bog represented a kind of purgatory or limbo.

TIM TAYLOR: It's neither underground nor the above-ground. It's something in between Heaven and Earth or Heaven and Hell, where the body will not rot. And I believe that is because they were trying to trap the soul, to freeze it, put to these people into a social limbo so that they could not join the realms of the ancestors. They did not go to the gods, but they did not stay in the world of the living either.

NARRATOR: But Ned Kelly from the National Museum of Ireland doesn't think the bog bodies were executed criminals. He believes the evidence to solve the mystery of why they died such brutal deaths lies in the areas where the bog bodies were discovered.

Croghan Hill, the weathered top of an extinct volcano, is an ancient sacred site. It was in the bog lands below, where the headless body of Oldcroghan Man was found.

NED KELLY: Croghan Hill is, I think, immensely significant in this area. First of all, it dominates the whole area. It's visible for miles and miles around.

NARRATOR: Throughout the Iron Age, Croghan Hill was one site for the inauguration of Celtic kings and other political and religious rituals. Celtic beliefs remained a powerful force, even after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century.

NED KELLY: There is a whole panoply of Christian monuments here. You can see the triumph of Christianity over the old pagan order. It's on St. Patrick's Day, 17th March, that people come to the Holy Well. And they pray, come up here, and they literally set fire to the hill.

NARRATOR: Kelly is convinced that the death of Oldcroghan Man so close to this sacred Celtic sacred site was more than a public execution. He also believes the location of bog body burials, on what were medieval tribal borders, may be significant.

NED KELLY: The Oldcroghan body is on the border of what was the royal estate of the O'Connors in the Middle Ages. When I looked at the Clonycavan Man, he is buried on the border between the modern counties of Meath and West Meath, which were also very significant tribal boundaries in the early medieval period. Now, I think that's not coincidental.

NARRATOR: Kelly discovered that more than 40 other Irish bog bodies were buried on these same traditional borders.

NED KELLY: I think these tribal areas were equally important in the Iron Age.

NARRATOR: But why would the ancient Celts murder people of high social status and stake them down on these tribal borders?

NED KELLY: My belief is that these burials are offerings to the gods of fertility, by kings, to ensure a successful reign. And if the king couldn't guarantee the fertility of the land, he could be deposed.

NARRATOR: If Kelly is right, these bog bodies weren't just murdered, they were sacrificed, the community giving up the well-born to appease the gods. But why were their deaths so violent?

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: I subscribe to the view that the violence is itself a sacred act. It's an energizing thing. It's something which actually imbues the body with particular currency, giving it a particular force. But I think it is also to do with collective responsibility, the idea that the whole community is involved in the killing.

NARRATOR: If the bog bodies are the result of a community-sanctioned ritual sacrifice, then to the ancient Celts, the bogs may have represented the entry way to the afterlife.

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN: The bog is a kind of threshold between worlds, a bit like the water in general. So it may be considered to be a gateway to the other world. But the bog itself is neither one thing or the other. It's neither land nor water, and it's both. And it's treacherous. And it shows a face to the world that isn't real, so there is an idea of treachery, of ambiguity about it. And I think that attracts people to use the bog as a sacred place.

NARRATOR: More than 2,000 years ago, the Celts could not have imagined that their sacrificial victims would become the subjects of a modern forensic investigation.

After 12 months, the Irish bog bodies project is drawing to a close. For five weeks the bodies have been soaked in a solution called "PEG," polyethylene glycol.

PATRICK : It seems to be going very well.

ROLLY READ: It is, isn't it?

NARRATOR: The PEG will prevent the bodies from shrinking when they are freeze-dried, the preferred method of long term preservation.

Since their burial in the Iron Age, the chemicals in the bog have preserved the bodies; now the Museum must continue what the ancient Celts and nature began. After 2,300 years hidden in the peat bogs, Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man are prepared for their final resting place. It's another kind of afterlife, on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

On The Perfect Corpse Web site, examine the most famous bog body of all, Tollund Man. Learn the many ways nature preserves human remains and more. Find it on

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The Perfect Corpse

Produced and Directed by
John Hayes Fisher

Produced for NOVA by
Gary Glassman

Edited by
Cob Carlson
Tony Quinn

Assistant Producer
Dan Walker

Associate Producer
Cass Sapir

Film Researcher
Dinah Rogers

Production Manager
Annie Corbett

Production Coordinator
Clare Lucas

Neil Ross

Ed Tomney

Julian Clinkard
Ian F.T. Young

Sound Recordists
David Holmes
Finny Byrne

Rob Pye

Hair & Make-Up
Erika Okvist

Historical Reenactment
Time Tarts

Stunt Coordinator
John Naylor

Motion and 2D Graphics
Aaron Root

Online Editors
Mike Brierley
Graham Portbury

Audio Mix
John Jenkins

Research Interns
Bryan Chang
Timothy Messitt
Kristen SaBerre

Project Leader for the Open University
Derek Matravers

Archival Material
Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY
Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY
Drents Museum, Netherlands
National Museum of Denmark
Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hanover
Silkeborg Museum, Denmark
Thirteen/WNET New York

Special Thanks
The National Museum of Ireland
Dr. Caroline Wilkinson & Caroline Needham
Forensic Art, The University of Dundee
Silkeborg Museum, Denmark
Beacon Clinic, Dublin
University of Whales Institute, Cardiff

Executive Editor for Timewatch
John Farren

NOVA Series Graphics
Yu + co.

NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.

Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring

Post Production Online Editor
Spencer Gentry

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Dara Bourne

Eileen Campion
Olivia Wong

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Managers
Lola Norman-Salako
Carla Raimer

Richard Parr

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Assistant Editor
Alex Kreuter

Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A BBC / WGBH Boston / ProSieben / Open University Co-Production for Nova in association with France 3

Produced for NOVA by Providence Pictures, Inc.

Bog Bodies © 2006 BBC

The Perfect Corpse Additional Material © 2006 WGBH Educational Foundation

All Rights Reserved

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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