The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 2

February, 1940

Bogs Yield Men and Modes of 1,500 Years Ago

National Park Service

old costumes
Men and costumes as reconstructed from bodies and clothes found in German bogs

Anyone who has visited Pompei will remember those skeletons which are on display in one of the vitrines of the museum. There they lie, cramped by terrific fear, with exactly the same postures in which they were caught by that surprising outbreak of Vesuvius that buried the entire city.

Not quite as spectacular on first sight but perhaps even more apt to guide the thought toward the spirit of another bygone age filled with fright and awe is a group of corpses (Moorleichen) which have been discovered in the bogs surrounding the western part of the Baltic and the eastern part of the North Sea (Denmark, North Germany and Ireland). Since the end of the eighteenth century, when people began to be conscious of their past and were willing to pay attention to objects they might disinter from the soil, peasants digging peat occasionally uncovered single corpses which evidently had not been buried formally. It did not appear likely that all these bodies should be those of victims of accidents. Lonely and awesome as some of the areas still are, we may suppose that few persons of ancient times would willingly have trodden unaccompanied the paths leading across these dangerous bogs. Of those who did only a few may have lost their way and got entangled in the marshes, which pulled them down to strangle them. Sometimes the bodies were released after some weeks to drift upon the treacherous surface.

The circumstances in which most of the bodies were found also preclude the supposition that they were those of solitary wanderers who had gone astray. Some were naked, with perhaps a cloth lying near them; others were found cramped, with fists clenched and tied up to the neck, any rag serving as a shackle. Many were observed to have received deadly wounds. Nearly all lay beneath a couple of logs. Finely woven garments had served to wrap the sinister relics, as well as terribly shaggy and patched remnants of clothing.

The macaber procession of corpses included those of men, women and boys. Some were mummified and would remain intact when exposed to the air, but others would deteriorate immediately. The skin was preserved completely in some cases, although looking like leather and notably shrunk, while not a trace of bone was to be noted. Others were nothing but bones in a rubber-like condition, easily cut through with the spade. The hair usually was well preserved although it invariably had turned foxy, lending a somewhat gruesome aspect to its owner. Impressions of violence were enhanced by the clear evidence that all these people must have undergone some terrific fear before they had been permitted to die, in prolonged struggle, making the sudden death of the inhabitants of Pompei seem slight and easy.

More than 50 of these corpses have been dug out and are to be seen in the museums of Hannover, Oldenburg, Kiel, Copenhagen, and other cities. General knowledge of such archeological excavations has not spread far because they have been carried out in only a restricted area, thus permitting but few scholars a thorough study of their cases.

Reconstruction of upright loom from Fârö Islands, in the Baltic Sea. Note the weights attached to the warp to hold it taut.

Yet, careful and minute research having been made in the last two decades, some important facts have been established. The corpses and the few other recoveries made in the bogs, such as bundles of clothing, have disclosed their secrets. The results afford a valuable in sight into folklore as well as into the history of costume and weaving. From Roman sources1 we know that the ancient Germans used to punish by forcing into bogs the offenders who had committed such crimes as adultery or desertion. Traces of such customs are also to be found in epic songs like the older Edda2.

It has been assumed generally now that most of the bodies are those of executed criminals and only a few may be the remains of murdered persons. Though many have been found nude, that does not mean necessarily that they were killed and robbed, for if they had worn linen clothes the garments would have been destroyed completely by the acids contained in the soil. Some were found dressed in apparel that had been patched all over, indicating perhaps a defamatory attire donned for the execution. Garments made of fine weaving proved only that their owners were wealthy and left doubt whether they were executed or murdered. Most of the bodies are those of men, but three or four are of boys. Few bodies of women have been identified.

skeleton and garment
A skeleton recovered in the Province of Hannover, showing the preservation of the hair. At the right are some ancient trousers from excavations at Marx-Etzel. Originals are in the Museum of Hannover.

Nearly all have been found with their hands bound, including those who apparently were murdered. This was done most probably to hinder the dead from "calling" his murderer or anyone else involved in his case. (The custom of tying the hands of dead persons when they are put into coffins still exists in some parts of Europe to prevent the departed one from causing the passing of another member of the family.) Logs or crossed pikes generally were found above the bodies. This might have several explanations. For one, it might have been done to keep the body from rising out of the bog. But another and perhaps more probable reason was to banish the person to the bottom. The addition of brush meant that the soul would be banished also by becoming entangled in the twigs.

Besides the bodies, single bundles of folded clothes, together with a few items like beads (Moorfunde), were discovered. These were probably offerings thrown into the bogs. Due primarily to these somewhat more elaborate items, a general agreement has been reached among archeologists to date all the discoveries in question back to the third or fourth centuries.

Marx-Etzel Shoe

Most of the men have been found to wear short trousers held up with belts and frocks with or without sleeves, to be pulled over the head. Besides this they used a kind of coat made in varying size and wrapped around the shoulders. It was trimmed sometimes with hooked fringes and fastened across the breast with a clasp. The lower part of the legs was tied up with bands. Shoes were made of leather, sometimes softened only on the inside while the outside was left covered with hair. They were fashioned by splitting a piece of leather around the edges into strips and then tying the pieces together with a string. Occasionally a part of the surface was marked with a geometric design. Only a few caps have been found. They were made of fur or goat skin. Portions of furs also have been discovered which apparently were used as coats.

Of women's clothing there is scarcely any evidence, because few women have been identified. Some were unearthed nude, however, indicating presumably that they wore linen which has disappeared completely. As linen elements of all the fabrics have disappeared, we now are able to find only what had been executed in wool, to which sometimes the hair of deer or cows was added. Weaving was done skilfully. Yarns were made of strings varying from one to four shafts. Some weaving shows such a fine twist as to have a silk-like character. Others are woven loosely with coarse but even threads. A special feature to assure greater firmness of the texture was introduced by yarns twisted in one way, to be used for the warp, and in the opposing way for the woof. Patterns of rhomboid or striped shape are frequent. There is no doubt that such woven fabrics were made on upright looms with hanging weights, somewhat similar to one reconstructed in 1851 in accordance with discoveries made on the Fârö Islands in the Baltic [See illustration, page 20]. It is interesting to note that such looms had a breadth capacity of about six feet, and that every garment was woven as a single piece. Black and several colors, such as blue, were employed, and there were contrasts between dyed and undyed woolens. It is much to be regretted that no linens have been preserved. They must have been of especially good quality because, according to Pliny, they were exported largely to Rome.

Experiments have been made for many years at Neumuenster, Schleswig-Holstein, to copy the old technique in weaving and dying. When such studies proved to be successful several museums used the reproductions and installed mannequins dressed with the garments.

The importance of these finds in the northern European bogs can be perceived readily by anyone concerned with the history of textiles or other aspects of material culture. Burial sites containing precolumbian textiles have been unearthed rarely in America. In the region of the moundbuilders a few have been found, but no satisfactory dating has been established. An Indian body discovered in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, although mummified, bore only bark sandals.

Some developed weavings were dug out of the Etowah mounds near Cartersville, Georgia, and a few well preserved examples of early weaving were discovered also in the Seip Mound of Ross County, Ohio. Owing to the chemical reaction of copper breastplate. which were buried at the same time, and to their acting precisely in the manner of the acids inn the European bogs, they were kept in quite as good a condition as the Baltic textiles, although only small fragments were preserved. The cloth fabric in those cases shows mauve colors with tan designs produced probably by dyes made with mineral. It may be that stamps were used for applying the design.

If, however, any parallel between North America and Europe should be drawn as to the importance of finds which might be used for the purpose of fixing dates for steps in human culture, it would be necessary at present to refer to the prehistoric Southwestern basketry rather than to the aforementioned items of American textiles.


Ned J. Burns, "Preservation of the Mammoth Cave Mummy." The Museum News, vol. XVII, No. 9, November 1, 1939, p. 8.

Georg Girke, Die Tracht der Germanen (Mannus-Bibliothek, Leipzig, 1922), Vol. 23-24.

Hans Hahne, "Ueber Moorleichen der Provinz Hannover." Jahrbuch des Provinzialmuseums Hannover, 1911.

K. H. Jacob-Friesen, Einfuehrung in Niedersachsens Urgeschichte, Hildesheim, 1931.

J. Martin, "Beitraege zur Moorleichenforschung," Mannus, Zeitschrift fuer Vorgeschichte, 1924.

Johanna Mestorf, 42 u. 47 Bericht des Museums fuer vaterlandische Altertuener, Kiel, 1900-1907.

Frank H. H. Roberts, "Archeological Remains in the Whitewater District of Eastern Arizona. Part I: House Types." Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 121, Smithsonian Institution, 1939.

G. Schlabow, 3500 Jahre alte germanische Trachten, Neumuenster, 1934.

H. C. Shetrone, The Moundbuilders, D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., New York, 1931.

W. von Stokar, Spinnen und Weben bei den Germanen (Mannus-Bibliothek, Leipzig, 1938), Vol. 59.


Reconstructions, p. 19, and skeleton, p. 21, Jacob-Friesen, pp. cit., 170.

Loom, p. 20, and trousers, p. 21, Stokar, op. cit., 79, 120.

Shoe, p. 22, Hans Hahne, "Die Moorleichenfunde der Provinz Hannover." Mannus-Zeitschrift fuer Vorgeschichte, II. Erganzungs-Band, 1911.

(1) Livy, Ab urbe condita libri, I, 51; Tacitus, Germania, Ch. XII.

(2) Third Gudrunlied.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002