The Hojgaard family need fuel, so they do as many others would in their small Danish village in the 1950s. They head out to the nearby bog, spades in hand. Next, the family members dig deep into the earth to find peat. But then their tools strike something different: it’s a body, and it appears as though the person has just died in the bog.
In a way, it made sense that the Hojgaards would happen upon such a scene – after all, someone had recently gone missing in the area. But upon further investigation, the body didn’t belong to the child who had disappeared in Copenhagen. No, this corpse belonged to a man, as shown clearly by the stubble poking from his chin.
So, who was he? And where did he come from? Police arrived on the scene expecting to investigate a crime but rapidly became aware they were out of their depth when they realized that the dead man didn’t come from their time. As it turned out, he had died thousands of years before his discovery, preserved in the bog for a stunning reason.
On a Monday morning in May 1950, police in the Danish town of Silkeborg responded to an eerie call. Two days prior, brothers Emil and Viggo Hojgaard, along with Viggo’s wife, Grethe, had together traipsed into a bog about 10 kilometers west of the town. They had planned to cut peat from the swampy lands and use it for fuel. But as they dug, their spades hit something else.
The Hojgaard family had happened across a dead body hidden within the layers of peat. Uncovering a corpse in such a way would be enough to scare anyone, but this body’s condition was chilling, to say the least. Namely, the unidentified person had a plaited rope wrapped around its neck, likely indicating the manner in which they had died.
Beyond that, the deceased wore only a sheepskin hat that seemed old-fashioned for the time. The body also had deeply tanned skin. When taking a close look at its face, it was easy to make out stubble poking out from the corpse’s chin and upper lip area, too.
The Hojgaards, of course, had dutifully called the Silkeborg police upon uncovering what appeared to be a man’s body. They had raised the alarm not least because of news coming out of the Danish capital city, Copenhagen. A boy from there had gone missing in the Jutland peninsula, and the body had appeared in a bog in the same region.
A closer look at the corpse’s face revealed it couldn’t be the missing schoolboy from Copenhagen, though – it had facial hair sprouting from its chin, after all. Regardless, the Hojgaards felt as though they had discovered the body of a recent murder victim, since the corpse remained so intact.
As police found out more details about the body’s discovery, though, they realized that the Hojgaards might not have called the right authorities. The family said they had cut more than eight feet into the peat, and they found the body at that depth. Plus, they reported that they saw no signs that anyone else had dug into that area recently.
As such, police realized that they had a case not for a detective, but for the experts at the local Silkeborg Museum. In the meantime, newspapers picked up on the incredible story of the body uncovered in the peat. They first started referring to the corpse as “the man from Bogville,” according to the Silkeborg Museum website.
But archaeologist and professor P.V. Glob is thought to have given the body its now-official moniker. Glob answered the call upon the bog corpse’s discovery. And he started referring to him as Tollund Man, paying homage to the Hojgaards. They came from the nearby village of Tollund and had, of course, found the body.
Finding Tollund Man marked the beginning of what would become decades of study and research into the perfectly preserved body. First, though, experts from the Silkeborg Museum had to transport the corpse from its final resting place in the bog. Once again, they got help from the brothers who had discovered the body in the first place.
Together, the museum staff and the Hojgaards built a box around Tollund Man to protect him. To do so, they dug into dirt far enough from the body to give him a platform of peat on which he could repose. Then, they built a box around the platform without filling in the bottom with boards – yet.
Once finished with the sides, the excavation team inserted boards one by one through the peat to slowly but surely build the bottom of the box. To finish, they placed a lid on top and, with that, Tollund Man had enough protection to make the journey to his new home. Amazingly, no one had touched the corpse during the box-building process.
Tollund Man’s journey would see his peat-filled box traveling by horse-drawn carriage from the bog to a train station in Moselund. Then, a train carried him from there to the National Museum in Copenhagen. There, experts would excavate the body further and learn more about the person they had found: namely, how old he actually was and how he had died.
It took eight days for the peat-wrapped corpse of Tollund Man to arrive at the National Museum. His appearance stumped the experts working there; he came with no message or description, so they didn’t know what they were supposed to do with him. However, they eventually began an open-air excavation of the body in the museum’s courtyard under the supervision of conservator Knud Thorvildsen.
Placing Tollund Man in the courtyard left him open to spectators, and most expressed their surprise at seeing the body’s face so completely intact. According to the Silkeborg Museum website, “Every [passerby] was immediately stricken by the fantastically well-preserved face.” Museum staffers, led by Thorvildsen, photographed Tollund Man’s face and frame before sending him to his next destination: Bispebjerg Hospital.
At Bispebjerg Hospital, doctors Christian Bastrup and Bjovulf Vimtrup helmed a series of medical examinations to learn even more about Tollund Man. For starters, they analyzed his cause of death; based on the fact he had a rope tied around his neck, he could have suffered strangulation or died by hanging.
The forensic examiner ruled out strangulation, according to the final report, because “the rope, judging by the way it was placed around the body’s neck, was most likely not used for strangulation.” Unusually for a hanging victim, however, there was a lack of damage to the bones in the neck and chin area.
Around Tollund Man’s neck and chin, the rope had left markings, showing that pressure had been put there. No such markings remained at the back of his neck, though. If he had been strangled, then Tollund Man would have had ligature marks there, especially because the rope would have had a knot tied at that point.
Later probes into Tollund Man have corroborated the Bispebjerg Hospital team’s initial findings. Radiography has since revealed that the corpse’s tongue had distended, or grown swollen due to internal pressure. Death by hanging would cause such a side effect. Interestingly, though, Tollund Man’s vertebrae didn’t break or show signs of damage, which meant his hanging had caused him to die by suffocation.
The fact that the Hojgaards had discovered Tollund Man’s body at all lent itself to another theory about the centuries-old death in the Danish bog. Experts agree that it’s unlikely that Tollund Man faced a hanging for something he had done wrong. If that had happened, his body would have been cremated.
Murder seemed an unlikely reason for death, too. Instead, scholars theorize that Tollund Man met his fate as part of a ritual. They believe this because early Europeans deemed bogs to be special places. After all, people had considered the will-o’-the-wisps, glowing gases emitted from the bog, to be fairies flitting around.
With all this in mind, experts believe that Tollund Man’s death happened as a sacrifice, perhaps as an offering for fertility. Afterward, his community deliberately chose his final resting place in the bog. Perhaps such a magical place could give him immortality – and, in a way, it did, considering how preserved he remained after millennia in the peat.
Indeed, even Tollund Man’s brain remained intact, although it had shrunk over time. His organs stayed in similarly pristine condition, especially considering the age of the body. Radiocarbon dating results indicated that Tollund Man had lived at some time between 375 and 210 B.C., although this estimate was later revised, as we’ll see. And at his time of death, he was about 40 years old.
The medical examination also included a look into Tollund Man’s stomach. A quarter-liter of digested food remained there, indicating what had been his last meal. Tollund Man had consumed a type of porridge or gruel made of flax, barley and knotgrass, and he ate it somewhere up to a day before his demise.
These details go to show just how well-preserved Tollund Man was. While astonishing, not everyone felt it appropriate to put such a find on display. Therkel Mathiasen, the head of the prehistoric department at the National Museum, opposed displaying Tollund Man’s entire body, finding it too “macabre”.
So, after the Bispebjerg Hospital team completed their autopsy, they severed Tollund Man’s head from his body. That way, museums could put the pristine skull on display by itself. The body has since dried out, leaving behind little more than Tollund Man’s bones. Still, these pieces could be useful for DNA tests in the future.
Researchers have all of this information available to them because, of course, Tollund Man remained so well preserved for so long. The bog, which locals once presumed to be magical, played a huge part in keeping the body in such a pristine state for multiple centuries. In fact, it was a kind of magic: in May 2017 Smithsonian magazine described the bog as having a “singular chemistry.”
The magic all starts with the bog itself, which forms in a very particular way. Raised bogs in particular make ideal preservation grounds. It all starts when water can’t drain from a particular area, which means plants can’t break down and decay as they normally would. Over the years, this layers up, as does sphagnum moss.
The raised bog remains filled by rainwater, but it doesn’t contain much oxygen or many minerals. Instead, the water becomes highly acidic, which makes it an unfriendly place for bacteria to grow. This combination makes a raised bog the ideal place to preserve a body for years or, in the case of Tollund Man, millennia.
In Tollund Man’s case in particular, the effects of the bog water can be seen on the surface of his body. The acid turned his skin to leather, as well as his nails and hair. Then, as the bog’s supply of sphagnum moss died, it released its namesake polymer, sphagnan, into the water, too.
Sphagnan aided in the preservation of Tollund Man, too. For one thing, it prevented the growth of bacteria by chemically binding nitrogen. It also helped to mummify the corpse. But it also leached the calcium from Tollund Man’s bones, thus making sense of the fact that he looked a bit rubbery when uncovered.
Understanding this science leaves experts with another question regarding Tollund Man – and the rest of the bodies they have uncovered in similar bogs throughout Europe. Mostly, they wonder if the people knew that the bog would preserve the bodies of their sacrifices, thus explaining why they left so many corpses there.
Such a theory makes sense – the bodies could have been seen as ushers to bring the rest of the clan into the afterlife. As with most other theories about bog bodies, though, this one relies on a lot of conjecture. Many of the communities from which these corpses came did not keep written records, after all.
What experts do know for sure is how each of the bog bodies, from Tollund Man and beyond, met their fate. Many of them wound up in their final resting place after very purposeful deaths. Tollund Man died by hanging, but others have been stabbed, strangled or even hit over the head in gruesome fashion.
As time passes and technology improves, though, Tollund Man continues to reveal a little bit more about himself and the time in which he lived. For instance, recently the Silkeborg Museum shared that a more modern aging technique called ultrafiltration had recalculated Tollund Man’s age: he had actually lived between 405 and 380 BC, and this could be stated with more than 95 percent certainty.
Of course, not all Tollund Man-related updates have to do with science, and some are just as fascinating as the discovery of the body itself. For instance, in October 2016, a phone call came into the Silkeborg Museum, and the caller posed an interesting question. They said, “I have, in my possession, one of Tollund Man’s big toes. Would you like to have it in a museum?”
As it turned out, after Tollund Man’s excavation and autopsy, experts had sliced the corpse into different parts. Of course, they had removed the head to display it solo, but they had separated other body parts, too. In the 1980s, a search ensued to find all of the missing pieces. That’s when it became clear that someone had sawn off Tollund Man’s big toe.
Rumors always swirled that a conservator named Børge Brorson Christensen had sliced off Tollund Man’s toe. As it turned out, it was his daughter, Birte, who called up to return the phalange after her father’s passing. And that tale’s yet another example of how, thousands of years after living his life, Tollund Man continues to provoke questions – and inspire wonder.