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The mystery of bog bodies

From USAtoday:

Scholars have long tried to make sense out of one of the oddities of the archaeological world —bodies pulled from ignominious burials in cold water bogs everywhere from Ireland to Russia.

Hundreds of these bog bodies have been found over the past two centuries. But who were they and why were they dispatched to the great beyond in mucky swamps? The theories range from executed deserters, to witches to everyday people.

The Irish Countess of Moira back in 1783 launched scholarly explorations by suggesting that bog bodies were victims of Druid ceremonies. Others, citing the ancient Roman writerTacitus, quickly saw them most likely as executed deserters. Arguments over individual finds have continued ever since the first look that year by the Countess at the Northern Ireland “Drumkeeragh” bog body, a woman dressed in wool clothes.

“Unfortunately the focus has been almost exclusively on the most spectacular finds, the mummified bodies,” says archaeologist Moten Ravn of Denmark’s Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, writing in the current Acta Archaeologica journal. Rather than arguing from just one body, Ravn suggests a survey of all the bodies might offer better clues to how they ended up buried in bogs.

What is a bog and how does it preserve anything? Cold-weather swamps, basically, where mosses turn waters brown. Roughly 560 bog bodies have turned up in Denmark alone, Ravn notes, usually discovered when farmers try to turn wetlands into farmland. His survey focuses on 145 bog bodies dating to the early Iron and late Bronze Age, roughly 500 BC to 100 BC, the pre-Roman era in northern Europe.

Acids found in bog waters have mummified some of the bodies, or more accurately tanned them into leather. Mosses release chemicals that leach calcium from the bodies, “which means that the bones of the bog bodies take on the consistency of rubber,” Ravn writes. Other bogs rich in lime have preserved other bodies only as bones.

Scholars have raced up and down the human pecking order in ascribing identities to the bodies. The historian Niels Petersen in 1835 decided that the “Haraldskaer” woman’s body found at the site of a copper factory belonged to the Norwegian Queen Gunhilde, drowned by King Harald Blatund (Bluetooth) in the Ninth Century. By 1907, archaeologist Johanna Mestorf became convinced they were all executed criminals, noting many of the bodies were bound and naked.

Shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazi archaeologists dominated bog body research starting in the 1930’s until the end of the Third Reich, Ravn notes, “interested in proving that the so-called Nordic race were direct descendants of the proto-Germanic race,” dating back to the Bronze Age.

All of these ideas have problems, starting with Queen Gunhilde, who was unlikely to have been buried in leather scraps, as she was found. Also a 2004 Journal of Archaeological Science study notes that carbon dating finds the “Haraldskaer” bog body was actually 2,500 years old, not in King Bluetooth’s reign.

As for executed criminals, Ravn notes there are only 21 Danish cases where the bodies have demonstrably been restrained, which, “may be a general protection against ghosts and not something reserved for criminals,” he writes. About 34% of the Bronze and Iron Age bodies in his sample are clothed, and clothing may not endure in bogs as well as flesh does, explaining its absence. A 2009 study, also in the Journal of Archaeological Science led by Ulla Mannering of the University of Copenhagen, reports 44 instances of bog bodies found with clothes in Denmark, most dating to the Roman era.

The Nazi theory is just crackers, of course, with even their own archaeologists pointing out bog bodies turned up in Ireland and elsewhere, even as far south as Crete, far outside any “proto-Germanic” home.

Instead, “most archaeologists today support the sacrifice theory,” Ravn writes. Proposed in the 1950’s, the basic idea is that bog bodies were mostly offerings to the Nordic gods Odin or Nerthus (“Mother Earth”), with the rest either murder or accident victims. People were mostly cremated in the era, a point which suggests a bog burial must have been a special event.

An alternative is the idea proposed in 2002 by historian Allen Lund that the bog bodies belonged to witches. Ancient people knew about the preserving nature of bogs and sought to suspend their supernatural foes in a state between life and death to forestall being haunted by them.

Ravn proposes a new theory to explain some of the bog bodies — maybe they were just people who died of natural causes and were sent to their burial in the bogs by their relatives. There is nothing special about the range of 145 people in his survey, men, women, young and old. Some were clearly placed in excavated holes lined with bark and cotton, buried with glass beads or gold jewelry in their mouths, a Roman custom. In Celtic myths, bogs and lakes were places of healing, Ravn suggests. “Is it possible that there was a wish to pass on these healing characteristics of the bog to a person who died a natural death so that the deceased could arrive healthy in the realm of the dead,” he asks.

Overall, bog bodies are “not so easy to explain,” Ravn says. The oldest one, the Koelbjerg woman, dates to 10,000 years ago. Others date to modern times, such as Johann Spieker, a hawker (person who used trained falcons to hunt), who died in 1828. “The reason that people were given their final resting place in the bog was not because of any one single tradition or one single ritual,” Ravn concludes. “Some were due to accidents and others to murder. Some may have been sacrificed and others may have died of natural causes and were buried in the bog.”

From USAtoday.


Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , ,

First Minoan shipwreck – an unprecedented find off the coast of Crete

Crete has seduced archaeologists for more than a century, luring them to its rocky shores with fantastic tales of legendary kings, cunning deities, and mythical creatures. The largest of the Greek islands, Crete was the land of the Minoans (3100-1050 B.C.), a Bronze Age civilization named after its first ruler, King Minos, the “master of the seas” who is said to have rid the waters of pirates. According to Thucydides, he also established the first thalassocracy, or maritime empire. The Minoans were renowned for their seafaring prowess, which opened trade routes with the powerful kingdoms of Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant.

Depictions of ships abound on Minoan seals and frescoes. They are detailed enough to show that the vessels were impressive: generally, they had 15 oars on each side and square sails, and were probably about 50 feet long. But little more was known about actual Minoan seafaring–until Greek archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki became the first to discover a Minoan shipwreck.

Hadjidaki, a self-described “harbor girl,” was born and grew up in the Cretan seaside town of Chania. An experienced and passionate diver trained in classical archaeology, she received funding from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory in 2003 to search for early ships near Crete. “I always wanted to find a Minoan shipwreck,” she says, “so I started looking for one.”

For nearly a month, she and a team of three sponge and coral divers aboard a 20-foot-long wooden fishing boat trolled up and down the island’s shores. Together with George Athanasakis of Athens Polytechnic University, they used side-scanning sonar and detected some 20 “targets,” or anomalies, that Hadjidaki sent her divers to investigate, often reaching depths of 400 feet. One by one, they turned out to be a depressing array of natural geological formations and portions of the seafloor ripped up by the nets of deep-sea trawlers, as well as a World War II airplane, a 19th-century shipwreck, and several pairs of shoes.

On the second-to-last day of the survey, Hadjidaki decided to ditch the technology and go on gut instinct. She knew that in 1976, Jacques Cousteau had brought a team to the small island of Pseira, a Bronze Age port about one and a half miles from the northeastern coast of Crete in the Gulf of Mirabello. He was in search of Atlantis, thought by some to be associated with the nearby island of Thera. Cousteau had found Minoan pottery underwater near the shore, and suggested it came from ships sunk in the harbor by the volcanic eruption that destroyed Thera in 1650 or 1520 B.C. (The finds are now believed to be from houses on Pseira that fell into the sea during an earthquake.)

Intrigued, Hadjidaki and the team headed to a spot about 300 feet off Pseira, near where Cousteau had been. “I thought, why don’t I go there and check it out myself?” she recalls. “But I said, I’m not going to go where Jacques Cousteau dived. I’m going to go to the deeper part.” First, she asked team member Giorgos Klontzas to venture down. Hadjidaki anxiously prepared to wait on the boat for five hours, the average total time of a single dive plus stops to decompress. But Klontzas returned only half an hour later. “He came up with his hands full of ancient pots,” she beams. “And he said to me, ‘There’s a whole world of them down there.’ So I jumped into the sea and said, ‘Let’s go!’ “Sure enough, cups, jugs, and amphoras lined the seafloor, and over the next couple of days the team brought several more samples to the surface.

In 2004, she expanded the team and mapped the site. The following year, large-scale excavation got underway. “Everything was buried in sand between rocks,” Hadjidaki says. “As we excavated, we found more and more and more.”

To date, Hadjidaki’s team has raised some 209 ceramic vessels, about 80 of which are nearly whole and clearly identifiable as types of amphoras and large jars that would have transported liquids, possibly wine and olive oil, though no residues remain. A handful of artifacts, including cooking pots, jugs, a few cups, and fishing weights, likely belonged to the ship’s crew.

Philip Betancourt, a Minoan pottery expert who codirected excavations at Pseira from 1986 to 1996, has examined the finds from the site. Even though no wood from the ship survives, he is convinced they belong to a wreck because they are an unusually large group of ceramic vessels that all date to the same period (Middle Minoan IIB, 1800-1700/1675 B.C.) and were all made on east Crete. “One doesn’t get an assemblage like that,” he says, “except from a very specialized context–in this case, a shipwreck.” Furthermore, the pottery that was still in place was found upside down, which seems to indicate the ship completely capsized and wound up with the hull uppermost and the cargo down. “This may help explain why no wood was preserved,” he says.

Hadjidaki has closely studied the arrangement of the finds, working with team architect Dimitri Timologos who drew underwater maps based on the artifacts’ location. On the maps, she can trace a narrow trail of pottery about 100 feet long at the northern end of the wreck, where she believes the ship started to founder. The trail broadens into a roughly oval-shaped concentration that extends over an area 50 by 65 feet, from which she estimates–by the distribution of objects–the ship to have been between 32 and 50 feet long. Hadjidaki thinks it was similar to, but larger than, one depicted on a serpentinite seal stone excavated at Pseira in 1991. It shows a ship with a beak-shaped prow, high stern, and single mast connected to the vessel by ropes (but no oars, as in earlier representations of Minoan ships).

Alexander MacGillivray, director of excavations at Palaikastro, a Minoan town on the easternmost shore of Crete, has also looked at some of the finds. “It’s fantastic to get a glimpse of the cargo from a vessel that plied the eastern Mediterranean when the Minoans first started building their palaces,” he says (see facing page). “At that time, the Cretans were importing many of the raw materials required to fuel their development into one of Europe’s first great civilizations. This was all done by sea–and the Pseira ship is our first example of a Minoan vessel of that time.”

Pseira had two harbors on its southern side facing Crete, both of which were protected by peninsulas where ships anchored. From the main harbor, a grand stone staircase led up to a town that consisted of about 60 buildings. “We don’t know whether the ship was headed from the island, toward the island, or anchored there, accidentally floating out and sinking,” says Betancourt. “But presumably, it had something to do with Pseira, of course, because it’s very nearby.”

The type of clay from which the pottery was made suggests the ship took on cargo from at least two locations on east Crete. Based on the pottery, Hadjidaki and Betancourt believe this ship was not destined for a voyage abroad, but rather was making local stops. “This was probably a very common sight–these relatively small coastal vessels that dealt with local trade east and west along points of the island,” says Betancourt. “The wreck gives us a lot of information on what was likely the normal trade practice of seafaring people.” Jan Driessen, director of excavations at the Minoan settlement of Sissi on east Crete, agrees. “We know from frescoes and other iconographic material throughout Crete that the Minoans were good seamen, that they had large ships of different types,” he says. “The Pseira wreck seems to represent a coast-hopping activity, short trajectories with specific ‘clients.’ It helps us visualize that process of distribution.”

Hadjidaki completed the final season of excavations at the end of September 2009, recovering 60 more ceramic vessels. At press time, the finds were still soaking in fresh water to remove crusty layers of sea deposits. Next, they will be cleaned by conservators, studied by experts, including Betancourt, and join other artifacts from the site at the archaeological museum in Siteia on east Crete. But Hadjidaki already feels a sense of accomplishment. “It’s the only Minoan shipwreck that has ever been found and excavated,” she says with a broad smile. “Period.”


Written by Eti Bonn-Muller

Photos – Vasilis Mentoyiannis, Nike Marder

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , , ,


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