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A last gasp – the death of a British Celt

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Bockstensmannen (photo Peter Lindberg)

Sometimes, the dinner discussions in our home veer towards the macabre, which is how we ended up talking about bog bodies – you know, those ancient remains that now and then crop up when someone cuts too deep into a peat moss. Most of these remains are very old, but we were discussing Bockstensmannen, Sweden’s most famous bog body. I have a soft spot for this gent, seeing as everything points to him being a 14th century person – and I am rather fond of the 14th century. I mean, who isn’t?

Anyway, Bockstensmannen was found in the 1930s, and the fact that someone had driven an oak stake through his heart sort of indicates his had not been an easy death. Further evidence points to him having been killed through blunt force to the head before being shoved into the then marsh and pinned down with three stakes – a precaution undertaken by his murderers to ensure his restless soul did not come back to haunt them.

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The clothes – courtesy Hallands Museum

Bockstensmannen was remarkably well preserved after his years in the ground – but more importantly, so were his clothes, giving us one of the few surviving complete examples of male garments in the 14th century . Dressed in hose, tunic, mantle and a nice hood, our bog body was a man of fashion – albeit not rich enough to be a slave under it. The lack of wear and tear to his body corroborates the assumption that he was relatively well off, which leads to the conclusion that his death was the consequence of a robbery. We will never know, of course. Nor will we know for certain if that oak stake did its job. Personally, I hope it didn’t, allowing him to inflict several sleepless nights on his attackers.

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The Tollund Man – going on 2 500 yrs

Now, in the context of bog bodies, Bockstensmannen is a newbie. Seriously, 14th century? Pfffff! You see, bog bodies crop up all over Northern Europe, most of them dating back to the Iron Age. In some cases, they seem to have died by misadventure, but mostly they seem to have been the victims of a ritual death. Were they willing sacrificial victims? Were they randomly selected or spoils of war? It is difficult to tell from the distance of several thousands of years, but there is evidence indicating that in some cases, the sacrificial lamb was indeed a volunteer, giving his or her life so that the clan might survive. Very noble, I am sure. Also rather futile, but people have always done irrational things in the name of faith.

Today, I thought we’d spend some time with one of the more famous of these bog bodies (Sorry Bockstensmannen: you are too young to qualify) So, allow me to sweep you back almost two thousand years in time. We are on a British marsh, it is the feast of Beltane, a time when normally bonfires lick the sky in celebration of the return of life and warmth to the northern hemisphere. But this year, there are no overt celebrations. The people of Britain skulk through the shadows, more than aware that everywhere the Roman invaders are looking to interrupt their traditional celebrations.

A small party of people are walking briskly towards one of the hallowed places, a small grove on a hillock. They talk quietly, eyes scanning every shrub, every stand of trees for a potential enemy. Only when they reach the flattened clearing at the top of the hill do they relax. Someone mutters something about how this is not right, how on this night fires should be lit, with people rejoicing that winter is over. He is hushed by the most senior member of the group. A fire is kindled, a piece of dough is produced and shaped into a flatbread. It is cooked over the little fire, and right at the end, a burning twig is held to one section, leaving a black burn mark on the bread.

In silence, the bread is broken into pieces. It is offered first to the man that so far has been sitting on the edge of things, eyes locked on the night sky above. He smiles crookedly and chooses the burnt piece. A tremor runs through him as he carefully chews the bread, watched by all the others. He swallows and stands, shedding the cloak he’s been wearing. Below, he is naked. He does a slow half-turn, his gaze on the shadowy surroundings. Every tree, every stone – he registers it in detail, and there is a stiffness to his shoulders, as if it takes conscious effort to remain so erect, so calm. No wonder, given what is to come.

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The Dying Gaul…

Someone says something to the naked man. His beard has been recently trimmed back from its ordinary length, and when he turns towards the speaker, the fire brings out the reddish notes in his facial hair. He tugs at the single adornment on his body: a narrow strip of fox-pelt tied around his arm. Despite the chilly air, his body is covered in a sheen of sweat, and he keeps on licking his lips.

The oldest of the men clasps his hand and says something. Another man steps forward, and he and the naked man embrace. When they at last separate, the naked man inhales, throws his arms wide and falls to his knees, facing the west. Another man takes a step forward. He’s holding an axe, and when he lifts it, the oldest man raises his hands to the heavens and invokes the Gods: Taranis, Esus and Teutates.

Thunk. The blunt end of the axe connects and the naked man sags.

Thunk. He crumples to the ground.

Thunk. He looks quite dead – but he isn’t.

Two men approach the unconscious man. He is hauled up into a sitting position, and the eldest man barks an order. A younger man rushes forward. There’s a knotted string of sorts in his hand. Swiftly, he wraps the string around the naked man’s neck, sets a knee to his back, and tightens the garrotte. There’s a gurgling sound from the dying man. A boy in his teens approaches, holding a ceremonial bowl. The oldest man produces a knife and severs the naked man’s jugular. Blood pours into the bowl. The naked man thrashes despite his unconscious state. No more blood. The garrotte is tightened, there is a snapping sound as the neck is broken.

By now, the man is very, very dead. His companions pray, the effigies of gods held aloft, and then two of them take hold of him and carry him over to a horse. Carefully, they place him atop the nervous beast, its hide a silvery white in the moonlight. In silence, they proceed down the hill, along a narrow path. The alders that line it rustle in greeting as the procession passes, making for a dark pool in the centre of the marsh. More prayers, more effigies held aloft, and the naked man is thrown into the water.

Over the coming centuries, his body will remain where it is, while the water dries into mud, and the marsh converts the vegetation that presently stands green and bright into peat.

The above is a fictionalised version of the Lindow Man’s last moments on earth, somewhere in the first century AD. Three axe-blows to his head, three ritualised deaths – the garrotte, the slicing of his throat, the drowning. From what can be gleaned from his body, his last meal was a scrap of sooty bread – maybe he was unfortunate enough to pick the piece of bread that had been purposely burnt, or maybe he, as suggested above, volunteered. Whatever the case, the rest of his physiognomy reveals a man in the prime of his life. If the idea was to placate the gods by offering a perfect sacrifice, the Lindow man definitely fit the bill – but what events could possibly be so dire as to require the ultimate of sacrifices, and what threats hung over the Lindow Man’s people for him to – apparently – go willingly to his death?

The answer lies in when he died and who he was. Studies of the body (discovered in 1984) have led scientists to conclude he was a Celt, and his unscarred skin, his soft, un-callused hands indicate he was neither a warrior nor a labourer. That fox-skin tied around his arm is believed to denote someone of high birth, and the way his beard had been sawed off would indicate that until recently, his beard had been longer. Adding all this up, the general conclusion is that the young man (he was somewhere around thirty when he died) was a druid – or rather a druid in training, as this profession required a long and extensive education.

It is believed he died in AD 60. A black year for the Celtic people of Britain. A year so filled with misery and death that the farmers dared not plant their fields. It all began with the Roman’s destruction of the Isle of Mona (Anglesey).

The Romans were in general tolerant to other people’s beliefs. As their empire expanded, they assimilated rather than converted the subjugated people – assuming everyone paid lip-service to the cult of the emperor, of course. But there was something about the druids that raised the Roman hackles, and they systematically persecuted the druids in the Gallic provinces, forcing the Celtic priests to flee to Britannia.

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An (unbearded) druidess

When the Romans launched their third attempt to invade Britain in 43 AD, one of the reasons may very well have been to do away with the druids once and for all. On the other hand, it seems a tad far-fetched: a bunch of bearded priests (and a bunch of female priestesses – beardless, one hopes) – what threat could they possibly pose to the Roman Empire? The answer lies in the fact that the druids were not only priests: they were the bearers of Celtic culture, they were renowned advisors to the Celtic kings and queens. They urged continued opposition to Rome, they scoffed at the idea that a mortal man should be considered a deity, be he emperor or not.

The Romans landed in Britain with no major opposition – at first. Once the British tribes gathered that the Romans were here to stay, leaders such as Caratacus tried to drive them off. Didn’t work. Through years of guerrilla warfare, the Romans persisted, building one base after the other, starting with Colchester. Caratacus was defeated in open battle a couple of times, fled to the Brigantes whose treacherous queen had him put in chains and delivered to the Romans as a gift-wrapped little parcel.

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Druids urging resistance

In the south, the British tribes grumbled under the Roman yoke – but there were benefits as well, such as more trade, more comforts. In the north and the west, the resistance continued, much of it led by the druids from their power base on the Isle of Mona – which also acted as a huge granary for the Celtic people.

In early spring of the year 60 AD, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman commander, had had it. He went to Mona, where two Roman legions carried the day against the fierce and brave but very undisciplined Celtic army that faced them. The druids were killed, the hallowed groves were chopped down, the hallowed wells desecrated, and the Celtic resistance was well and truly quenched. Or was it?

Suetonius did not get much time to savour his victory, because news reached him from the south, telling him the Iceni under their queen Boudica had risen in revolt. Colchester had been sacked and torched, and now the Iceni horde was making for London. Suetonius had no choice but to hasten east to defend what little remained of Roman Britain.

As many of you know, Boudica’s revolt was triggered by Roman avarice and their horrible treatment of her daughters – and, perhaps, a conclusion that the Roman yoke would not be quite as easy to bear as the British had originally thought. As the Iceni rose in anger, the Silurians further to the west kept the second legion (based in present-day Gloucester) fully occupied – mere coincidence? Or was this the result of a larger Celtic agenda, driven by the druids?

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Suetonius (photo Ad Meskens)

Ultimately, Suetonius won over the Iceni – despite being severely outnumbered. Yet another catastrophe for the Celts, with over 80 000 Celtic warriors killed in the aftermath of the decisive Battle of Watling Street. The druids were gone – well, almost – brave Boudica and her army lay dead, and the fields that should have been planted lay fallow, auguring a winter of starvation for the British people. The Gods had turned their faces from the Celtic people. Something had to be done – and it had to be done fast!
We will never know for sure if the above events triggered the human sacrifice resulting in the Lindow Man. But as a hypothesis, it seems plausible – and there is no doubt whatsoever that the Lindow Man died as described above. A ritualised death, carefully staged so as to honour the Gods.

If the intention was to have the Gods smite the Romans and drive them from Britain, the sacrifice was a failure. If, however, it was intended as a plea to safeguard the Celtic people, it was somewhat more successful. After all, when the Roman Empire succumbed to the Germanic invaders in the fifth century AD, there were still plenty of Celts in Britain – more than enough to take up arms against the flood-wave of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. But that, as they say, is a different story!

P.S. If you want to read more about the fascinating Lindow Man, I warmly recommend Ann Ross’ and Don Robins’ book  The life and death of a druid prince. 

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