Bogs are perhaps best known for preserving prehistoric human remains. One of the most famous examples of these so-called "bog bodies" is Tollund Man. (Getty Images)
Per the paper, archaeologists need to act quickly to recover organic material trapped in the wetlands before specimens degrade
Peat bogs are notoriously uninhabitable. When low in oxygen, they don’t support microbial life, and without microbes, dead humans and animals caught in the spongy wetlands fail to decompose. Thanks to this unusual characteristic, peat bogs have long been the scene of incredible archaeological discoveries, including naturally mummified human remains known as bog bodies.
But new research published in the journal PLOS One presents evidence that bogs are losing their body-preserving abilities. As Cathleen O’Grady reports for Science magazine, archaeologists found that the best-preserved artifacts recovered from bogs in 2019 resemble the worst-preserved ones found in the 1970s, while the best-preserved specimens from the ’70s are on par with the worst retrieved in the 1940s. (Bogs’ lack of oxygen, as well as an abundance of weakly acidic tannins, preserves artifacts as delicate as small mammal and bird bones.)
The findings suggest that archaeologists may need to act quickly to uncover what’s left in the world’s bogs.
“If we do nothing, wait and hope for the best, it is likely that the archaeo-organic remains in many areas will be gone in a decade or two,” the authors say in a statement. “Once it is gone there is no going back, and what is lost will be lost forever.”
Northern Europe is dotted with peat bogs, which stood out among the thickly forested prehistoric landscape and may have served as spiritual places. “Half earth, half water and open to the heavens, they were borderlands to the beyond,” wrote Joshua Levine for Smithsonian magazine in 2017.
Many bog bodies show signs of horrific violence. Theories regarding these unlucky individuals’ deaths—and unusual mode of interment—range from execution to robberies gone wrong and accidents, but as archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green told the Atlantic’s Jacob Mikanowski in 2016, the most likely explanation is that these men and women were victims of ritualized human sacrifice.
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