Peat cutting and bog finds

Nowadays we are not very familiar with bogs, which make up just 1% of the Danish landscape. Yet in the Iron Age, when Grauballe Man live, bogs made up about 20% of the landscape, and they were an important feature in the landscape.

Bogs in the Iron Age

Like elsewhere in Europe the few bogs that remain in Denmark are valued and protected landscapes, recognised as unique biotopes between land and water. Yet in the Iron Age bogs meant a lot more to people. They were sacred places, as reflected in the many offerings, including bog bodies, that we find in them. At the same time, these landscapes were used and exploited in more mundane ways, for instance to cut peat, which could be used as fuel. Pollen analysis shows that peat cutting began around 1000-800 BC, probably because forests were fast disappearing as people cut them down for timber, fuel and to expand agricultural land. Peat, once it is transformed into peat coal is a high energy fuel that offers a good alternative to charcoal made from wood. In fact experiments with both types of fuel have demonstrated that peat coal gives a better yield than charcoal when smelting iron. This may partly explain why peat cutting became more common in the Iron Age.

Peat cutting

This pragmatic exploitation of the bog’s resources continued throughout history, but, over time, bogs lost their sacred connotation. They did retain an air of mystery and magic though, as reflected in folk traditions across north-western Europe. In these tales, bogs are transcendental landscapes inhabited by otherworldly beings who may be friendly but could equally be dangerous. Moreover, although they did provide peat, the land covered by bogs could not be used for agriculture. It is therefore no wonder that people were not reluctant to destroy bogs, whether through drainage or by cutting peat on a large scale. As a result very few of these unique and iconic landscapes still exist today. Ironically, were it not for the large-scale exploitation of peat, we would not have found bog bodies like Grauballe Man, or the many other objects that prehistoric people offered to the gods in these landscapes between water and land.

'Things one finds below the bogs'...

Such finds were made by peat cutters on a regular basis. In the Netherlands for instance, bog finds are first mentioned as early as 1658 AD. An 18th c. AD account describes the ‘leather jerkins, rough hats, shoes, pots…horns of oxen and deer, teeth of animals and other things one finds below the bogs’. Many of these early finds, including any bog bodies, would have been destroyed or reburied, after which they decayed and disappeared. Yet in the 19th c Archaeology developed as a discipline and museums were founded to store ad study the objects and items detailing natural and cultural history. From this time onwards, many, if not all, bog finds started to be recorded and kept. Luckily, Grauballe Man was found in 1952, when bog bodies were already well-known and their importance had been recognised. It is because of this that he was so carefully recovered, studied and preserved and it is why we may still marvel at this well-preserved Iron Age man.