Violence against the individual is a pervasive theme in the Iron Age archaeology of North-west Europe. Among the most dramatic illustrations of this phenomenon are human bodies preserved in peat bogs, often bearing evidence for multiple traumatic injuries. Several well-known examples are suggestive of ‘overkill’, perhaps inflicted by groups of assailants, although interpretations of this kind are always complicated by post-mortem damage caused by the dynamic depositional environment within which their remains were contained. This new synthesis, by Melanie Giles, seeks to offer a fresh perspective on these extraordinary individuals through a wide-ranging review of previously documented bog bodies and the detailed analysis of a little-known example from north-west England, all set within a broad overview of the ever-changing relationship between humans and the North European peatlands.
The book focuses on the floruit of bog body deposition, from around 1200 BC–AD 400, across a swathe of Northern Europe from Denmark, through the Netherlands and north Germany, to Britain and Ireland. It thus follows a long line of impressive syntheses stretching from P.V. Glob's seminal The bog people: Iron Age man preserved (Reference Glob1969), to Miranda Aldhouse-Green's recent Bog bodies uncovered (Reference Aldhouse-Green2015). Several aspects of the work, however, set Giles's volume apart from its predecessors. Avoiding what she describes as the ‘forensic trope’ characteristic of much recent writing on bog bodies, Giles organises the volume according to what she characterises as her ‘afterlife’ approach, starting with the discovery and reception of bog bodies from the early modern period to the present day, and working through their analysis to their interpretation and display. The early chapters (2–4) are rich in historical and folkloric anecdote. From medieval Christian eschatology, with its concepts of purity and sinfulness, through an antiquarian fascination with skull measurements and racial theory, Giles provides an exhaustive but entertaining history of shifting attitudes to both the peatlands and the preserved bodies they contained.
In Chapter 5, Giles explores the many and varied objects deposited in “the black hole of the peat pool” (p. 80), which, as she observes, differs in its darkness and stillness from the rivers, lakes and streams commonly used to deposit votive offerings during later prehistory. The increasing use of peat as a fuel during the Bronze Age brought a new intensity of interaction between people and peatlands. Extraordinary objects given up to the bog range from the Gundestrup cauldron, with its unparalleled profusion of narrative imagery, to the quartz-eyed wooden figures from Ballachulish and Roos Carr, and the poignant deposition of eight braids of waist-length human hair from Sterbygård. Yet, as Giles points out, any consideration of such objects must also account for the many offerings of agricultural produce and other apparently mundane deposits. Taking her cue from Fontijn's (Reference Fontijn2020) work on creating value through the destruction of wealth, Giles presents a fresh perspective on the potential motivations underlying the deposition of objects in the irretrievable depths of the bog; a perspective that situates the deposition of bog bodies within a wider theoretical framework.
Chapter 7 is taken up with a detailed case study centred on Worsley Man, the preserved head of an adult male recovered from a peat bog near Salford in the late 1950s. Giles's new investigation confirms the presence of sharp force trauma, probably inflicted by multiple assailants, culminating in decapitation. Radiocarbon-dating suggests that Worsley Man died in the Roman period—cal AD 131–251 is quoted here, but recalibration with the newly released IntCal20 puts that later still. This focus on Worsley Man, along with a host of long-vanished ‘paper’ bog bodies and body parts (notably severed heads), offers a welcome fresh perspective on British bog bodies where discussions are usually dominated by Lindow Man. The work presented here shows that the extreme violence perpetrated on Lindow Man was part of a broader pattern, and one that extended well into the Roman period.
The violence meted out to so many bog bodies is considered in Chapter 8 in the wider context of the osteological record for Iron Age Britain and Europe. Skeletal remains, like those recovered from the disused grain pits at Danebury hillfort, while lacking the forensic detail available from bog bodies, display signs of violence hinting at analogous practices. Giles's discussion is thus hugely valuable in re-contextualising bog bodies in their wider later prehistoric context, something often missing in previous writings. The final sections of the volume concern the ethics and practice of exhibiting bog bodies in an age when institutions are increasingly queasy about the display of human remains.
As well as being richly detailed, the book is beautifully written, with many memorable and evocative passages. It is also extremely well produced with excellent colour photographs and line drawings. It will be an invaluable addition to the rich literature on this endlessly fascinating aspect of European prehistory.