College of Letters & Science
University of California, Berkeley
April 2002

Tales from the Bog

Karin Sanders' research on the bog mummies explores how language brings us face to face with the past

In 1835, a man digging for peat on Denmark's Haraldskaer Estate came up with an unexpected find. It was a long, knobby human body, blackened by the bog but eerily preserved. Soon the unearthed woman had an identity and a name. She was Queen Gunhild, a monarch from old Norse legend. The Danish king, Frederick VI, supported this theory and prepared the body for a royal burial.

At the same time, a young archeologist named J.J.A. Worsaae developed his own theory: the body dated back far earlier than the death of Queen Gunhild and was the victim of ancient punishment or sacrifice. In 1977, with the advent of carbon dating, Worsaae was proven correct. But the body, in its regal coffin, still lies buried in a churchyard alongside Danish royalty today.

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The dual tale of the Haraldskaer Woman fascinates Karin Sanders, UC Berkeley associate professor of Scandinavian Studies. Last May, Sanders became one of the first five recipients of a Townsend Center Initiatives Award, a grant that will allow her to focus exclusively on her research next semester while receiving full salary. Her work will explore writings about the bog people, a series of bodies discovered in northern Europe over the past two centuries.

Of the hundreds of bodies discovered, some have been remarkably preserved by the acid- and oxygen-free conditions of the bog. In many cases, skin and clothing have remained intact over the course of 2000 years. "I'm interested, as a literary scholar, in figuring out how visual artifacts are understood in literature, poetry and drama," says Sanders, who has written a book about references to classical sculpture in Scandinavian Romantic literature. "In this project, I'm interested in how the object is treated when it is, or was, a human being."

To answer this question, Sanders will look at two forms of writing: the poetic descriptions found in literature and the archeological writings of the scientific world. Despite differences in style and perspective, Sanders is finding that poets and scientists explore the bog people using many of the same metaphors. "Whether you're looking at it as a scientist or a poet, it's very easy to imagine the bog bodies as a direct portal into the past," Sanders says. For archeologists, that means writing about the bog people in more intimate terms than they use for a piece of pottery. Bodies are referred to as "Man" or "Woman," sometimes nicknamed for physical features like "Red Franz's" striking red hair.

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Visual reconstruction of Yde Girl, a bog body found in 1897

According to Sanders, scientific "humanization" of the bog bodies isn't always innocent. She cites the Nazis, who claimed that the majority of bog bodies had been homosexuals executed by their communities. In a 1937 speech, SS head Heinrich Himmler referred to the Weerdinge Couple, two men buried together in a Dutch bog. Careful not to paint the Northern European "Aryans" as a barbaric people, Himmler said the deaths had been "not a punishment, but simply the termination of such an abnormal life."

Even in less extreme cases, Sanders says, bodies have been used to support different theories about Northern European history. "When we want to give a face to the past, we're hoping to find some sense of authenticity of our nation and origins," Sanders says. "The question is how we translate that into language."

On the literary side, writers have used the bog bodies as a springboard to explore various aspects of culture and society. In 1845, the Danish dramatist Jens Christian Hostrup used the recently unearthed "Queen Gunhild" as the basis for his play The Sparrow and Crane Dance. Here, the mysterious queen appears to a tailor and gives him a magic ring. The ring changes the way people perceive him. A philosopher sees the tailor as a Socratic ironic. Young girls see the tailor as their own dream hero. "Hostrup uses her as a way to criticize the bourgeoisie and their inability to see clearly what's happening in the world," says Sanders. "His play is also an indirect attack on the false bog-body theories and a defense of Worsaae's archeological ideas."

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Tollund Man, unearthed in 1950

For Sanders, a scholar of Scandinavian Romanticism, Hostrup's nineteenth century work is a comfortable point of departure. "But," she says, "I have to follow my bodies." They will lead her into the mid-twentieth century, when the body called the Tollund Man was discovered by post-war peasants digging for fuel. The Man, with his strikingly alive face, pointed leather cap and full belly of seeds, brought bog writings to a new lifelike level.

In 1967, Danish anthropologist P.V. Glob published The Bog People, the first mainstream archeological work on the bodies. Glob's book inspired North Irish poet Seamus Heaney to write his "Bog Poems." Heaney's ode to the Tollund Man, with his "peat-brown head," became a musing on the culture and religion of Northern Europe, ancient and modern. "The bodies make history seem very close," says Sanders. "It's as if we're looking right into the face of our ancestors. We imagine that we can almost ventriloquise the past through them."

Sanders will begin working full-time on her research this spring, meeting throughout the semester with archeologist Margaret Conkey. This interdepartmental partnership was facilitated by the Townsend Center as part of its Initiatives program. "That's one reason it's good to be at Berkeley," Sanders says. "I can find archeologists like Meg who are interested in interpretation. In Denmark, archeologists are less inclined to think about artifacts through the kind of lens I'm proposing."

To prepare for her semester of work, Sanders is planning a brief trip to Europe this winter. She also hopes to contact the forensic research team in Manchester, England, a group that plans to complete a facial reconstruction of the Grauballe Man next spring. "I'm interested in the way science and artistic interpretation come together, particularly when a face from the past is being constructed," says Sanders. "Whether visually or verbally, there's a final moment when the last Promethean fire is blown into the face and the object becomes a human being."

– Todd Dayton

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