The 2,000-Year-Old Body That Didn't Decompose

Normally you would decompose within around a hundred years. Image credit: Dina Zaur.a/shutterstock.com

On the edge of Wilmslow in Cheshire, England, one man in the 1980s kept on finding pieces of bodies that looked fresh but were actually well over a thousand years old.

Andy Mould was working on an operation that collected peat from the bog of Lindow Moss. On May 13, 1983, he spotted what appeared to be a leather football, but turned out to be a human head. He didn't realize this until he'd washed it and saw an eyeball staring up at him from within the jawless skull. 

The head – or what there was of it – was well preserved, with skin and hair as well as the eyeball still intact. When the police inspected it, in fact, they believed it belonged to a woman who had gone missing from the area 20 years prior. They soon found out it was over 1,600 years old, but before that, her husband had already confessed to her murder.

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A year later, Andy Mould was supervising the peat collection once more when he saw an unusual clump.

“We gave it a little clean, then we saw the toenails,” he said of the second find. The body was even better preserved than the first.

The police were called again, and signs of violence were found on the man's body, including evidence of blunt trauma and strangulation. But again it eventually fell under the archaeologists' remit, for carbon-dating put this body at around 2,000 years old. 

So, how does a body end up being preserved so well for so long? In usual circumstances, your body will decompose completely before you can even celebrate your 100th death day.

 

A century in, and your clothes, meat, tendons, and even clothes will have disintegrated, leaving nothing but teeth within your coffin. However, under certain circumstances that process can slow down – sometimes by an extraordinary amount.

Peat is created through the decomposition of organic matter, largely from plant materials such as moss. In particular. when sphagnum moss accumulates enough in wetlands to form a bog, the layers of peat form acids that are incredibly good at preserving bodies. Fall into one of these – or get murdered or sacrificed and thrown into one of these – and when you get discovered centuries later, you very well could look like somebody who fell in yesterday while playing dress up as a murdered 400 BCE peasant.

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"These plants acidify the soil while also releasing a compound that binds to nitrogen, depriving the area of nutrients,"  Carolyn Marshall explained in a Ted talk about the bog body, now known as the Lindow Man. "Alongside cold northern European temperatures, these conditions make it impossible for most microbes to function."

"With nothing to break them down, the dead mosses pile up, preventing oxygen from entering the bog. The result is a naturally sealed system. Whatever organic matter enters a peat bog just sits there – like the Lindow Man."

The acid dissolved away his bones, but sugary substances in the peat acted like a tanning agent, turning his tissues to leather.

"His corpse is otherwise so well-preserved, that we can determine he was healthy, mid-20s, and potentially wealthy as his body shows few signs of hard labor," continued Marshall. "We even know the Lindow Man’s last meal – a still undigested piece of charred bread."

Further investigations into the cause of his death have been hampered by the intervening years. For instance, it's difficult to tell whether his injuries were inflicted before death or due to pressure as he lay there in the peat. However, CT scans of the body have shown signs of swelling within his brain – an indication that he may have lain unconscious for several hours before death, likely by a slit throat.

There's also evidence that suggests that the Lindow Man may have been part of a ritual sacrifice, including mistletoe pollen in his stomach – used in druidic rituals – and a surplus of copper pigment on his torso, which could be part of a ritual surrounding his death.

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