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Tollund Man: Revealing the Last Meal of an Iron Age Mummy

tollund man iron age mummy bog body
The “Tollund Man” is so well preserved that he was thought to have been a recent murder victim when he was found in 1950. Credit: Public Domain

The Tollund Man, an unfortunate victim of human sacrifice in Iron Age Denmark, is known as a “bog body,” one of a group of remarkably-well preserved ancient mummies found in Europe’s peat bogs.

Although found over half a century ago in 1950, scientists have now re-analyzed his stomach contents using the latest technology, and they were able to determine the contents of his last meal — barley porridge, flax seeds, and fish, a simple but nutritious meal for that time.

The 2,400-year-old remains of the Tollund Man, who was likely aged 30 to 40 at his time of death, were found in Denmark’s Jutland peninsula by two peat cutters working in the bog.

Bog body was a victim of ritual human sacrifice

His body was so free of decay that they believed he was a recent murder victim, because the leather noose used to kill him was incredibly still hanging around his neck. In actuality, scientists believe he was killed sometime during the period of 405 to 380 BC.

While some posited that he was an executed criminal, experts now theorize that he was the victim of ritual sacrifice. His body was carefully placed in the bog in a fetal position, and his mouth and eyes were closed after death, pointing to the ritual nature of his death.

Experts believe the area may have been an important ritual or religious site. Another naturally-mummified bog body, called the “Elling Woman,” had been found only 200 feet away from the Tollund Man just eleven months before.

She had also been hanged, and is thought to have lived in the Iron Age as well, but it is impossible to determine if she was killed around the same time as the Tollund Man.

Scientists at the time were able to determine that the man had eaten his final meal around 12 to 24 hours before his death by hanging, but they were unable to determine what exactly the contents of his stomach were at the time.

Tollund man, a mummy from the Iron Age, ate simple, nutritious last meal

tollund man iron age mummy
The Tollund Man, an Iron Age mummy found in Denmark. Credit: Chocho8/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

A group of Danish scientists, headed by Nina Hilt Nielsen, director of research at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, reexamined the contents of his stomach using current technology, which is much more advanced than that which was available in the 1950s.

Nielsen’s team used advanced technology to analyze microscopic proteins, plant particles, chemicals, and pollen samples from his large and small intestines, and were eventually able to determine that the Tollund Man had eaten a hardy meal of barley-based porridge, flax seeds, and fish before his death.

This is a surprising last meal for a victim of ritual sacrifice, as it does not include any luxurious ingredients or psychoactive substances and analgesics, which are often found in instances of human sacrifice.

There was one odd substance found in his meal, however. Scientists were able to determine that the man had consumed threshing waste, or bits of plant matter and seeds that are usually removed during the threshing process. Some experts believe the substance may have had a ritual aspect to it.

Although simple, the meal was extremely nutritious and filling, as it would have accounted for over half of the man’s daily calories.

Further analysis of the man found that he, however, was not in perfect health. The Tollund Man had been infected with three different parasites at the time of his death, which he likely contracted from eating undercooked meat.

Bog bodies: the stunningly-well preserved mummies of Europe

Bog bodies, found in peat bogs across Northern Europe and Britain, are incredibly well preserved. Some of the bodies found in peat bogs are extremely old, dating as far back as 8,000 BC, and others are as recent as World War II.

Some bodies are so well preserved that their facial hair and clothing is still in perfect condition. This is due to the fact that the peat serves as a refrigerating agent, as the substance is extremely cold, and there is little oxygen in the depths of bogs.

Additionally, sphagnum moss, found in peat bogs, impedes the chemical reactions that are necessary for the decomposition process. These factors make peat bogs the perfect places for natural mummification.

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