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Home > Places

Tarred with a bog brush

Jane Skelton pays a visit to the famous bog man of Tolland.

5 December 2003

I’ve always had a certain affinity to bones; I used to collect animal skulls as a child. Pigeons and squirrels mainly, although I once found a lamb's head in a ditch. A red letter day. I remember being intrigued when my older brother brought home a full skeleton whilst studying medicine; he assured me that if you were to survive on a diet of nothing but pineapples, your bones would completely dissolve.

Luckily for The Tollund Man pineapples were scarce in 220 BC in the bog lands of Bjaeldskovdal. However, his bones were not so lucky in death; his entire skeleton was demineralised by the high acid presence in the bog where he was buried, leaving his bones like rubber. But this acid remarkably preserved the skin, as it prevented any bacteria developing in the bog that would otherwise cause decay of organic matter. So he’s a bit like a Raggy Doll.

Such is the level of preservation that his frown lines, crow’s feet and stubble are clearly visible. It is no wonder that when he was discovered on May 6th, 1950, that brothers Emil and Viggo Højgaard immediately called the police, believing that they had unearthed a recently murdered and dumped body. The Tollund Man, or 'Leonard' as he is sometimes called, now rests in the Silkeborg Museum, 10km from the dried up lake where he was unearthed, and his body has been laid out exactly as he was found, in a curled foetal position.

The poet Seamus Heaney famously wrote a homage to this strange, bendy, curled-up man, having read about him in a book. In 1974, two years after his poem was published, Heaney travelled alone to Silkeborg... "I felt I had to. I see the poem, which I had written before ever going to Denmark, as a form of vow":

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country nearby
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach...

Almost thirty years later, and with an element of ghoulish enthusiasm, I find myself making the same solitary journey to meet The Tollund Man, and yes, I too wrote a poem before I left. A haiku called 'The Tollund Man':

Found in a cold bog.
Leather thong, cap, and girdle,
A prehistoric gimp?

Actually, I wrote two poems. The second one is pasted at the bottom. It too is called 'The Tollund Man' but it isn't a haiku.


I arrived at the Silkeborg museum as the evening light was fading, and alone I entered the new building that housed the bog-man. Christian Fischer, the director of the museum, had granted me a private viewing, which was a marvellous opportunity to creep myself out. An archway beyond the Iron Age display opened onto a darkened cavernous room, and as I stepped in, atmospheric lighting was triggered… (Spooky!)

Irrelevant patchy sand, swept over the floor, did little to evoke the peat bog setting, and merely made my timid, reverent footsteps scratchy and loud, as I approached the dimly lit glass display case.

I was immediately reminded of the scene from Goldfinger, when the camera pans round to reveal the tragic Jill Masterson, naked, and covered in gold. Well, The Tollund man is not dissimilar, albeit less peachy, only instead of gold, imagine a cross between Bovril and tar.

He was like nothing I had ever seen before, and yet every feature of his face was recognisable. There was nothing extraordinary about his face, and perhaps that is what makes seeing him in the flesh such an emotional experience. His ordinariness was mesmerising. Looking at skeletons is a remote event; even mummified Egyptian corpses seem hard to relate to as ‘one of us,’ but here laid a man whose face looked merely asleep, his wrinkled eyelids and creased lips closed, with an expression of calm.

Yet tightly bound around his neck lay the severed noose of a rope. The cause of death was hanging, and deep furrows have been left on the skin of the neck and under the chin. Precisely how this 30-year-old man met his untimely death has been debated, and as I stood there alone with him, I found myself contemplating him with mixed emotion: if he were a criminal, perhaps guilty of some horrendous crime, should I really be considering him with such awe and veneration?

I quickly flicked through the accompanying guidebook, and tried to form a logical response to the corpse that lay before me. When he was exhumed, The National Museum of Denmark carried out extensive examinations on the body; he was x-rayed, and autopsied, which revealed several clues as to whom this man was.

Although some believe he was a criminal, the general consensus among archaeologists is that he was a ritual sacrifice to the gods, one of some 600 unearthed from peat bogs in Denmark alone, most of which date from the Iron Age. The remains of his last meal were found in his intact gastro-intestinal tract, and it was ascertained that he'd consumed his last meal 12-24 hours before his death. A ritual ‘last supper’ perhaps, before he was sacrificed as a thanksgiving for that year’s peatcutting success.

The meal had been like a primitive Ready Brek, a blend of cereal and weed seed (yum!), a dash of ergot, a fungus blight found on rotting rye that causes hallucinations, and linseed, as they’d run out of milk. There is still debate as to what effect the small amount of ergot might have had on The Tollund Man; some think the ergot’s hallucinogenic power would have helped him commune with the spirits, as he passed from the earthly world to the world of his dead ancestors.

Only one thing we know for sure about the man from the Tollund bog: with all that fibre he must have been regular as clockwork.

my other poem:

'The Tollund Man'

Seamus Heaney read about Bog people,

In a book by Peter Glob,

(I swear that’s his real surname).

Inspired he penned an elegy, vowed a pilgrimage:

"Some day I will go to Aarhus," he said, to see the

"Trove of the turfcutters" - which I find a strangely

clumsy phrase. For a poet, particularly. You think they'd be

good with words. But perhaps he is implying

through a clever use of language that

Danish turfcutters are clumsy people.

Which would be an example of Mimesis, I think.

Racist Mimesis.

So anyway,

As I, in turn, read this factually inaccurate poem,

(The Tollund man isn’t even in Arhus, duhhh!

You were a good 84km out, Mr. Heaney)

Like ripples in a bog, inspiration struck me,

So Thursday week, I’m popping to the correct museum,

To see his sepia skin, embrowned by sphagnum acid,

That’s bog weed to you and me.

I'm quite excited. After all:

“Nothing beats the moor corpse”

(Page 8, Silkeborg tourist brochure, 2003/04).

I hope I don’t get creeped out by his wrinkly eyelids,

I wonder if his, no, I shouldn’t even think things like that.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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