Who Is the Tollund Man?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Tollund Man was a man who lived during Denmark's Iron Age. He is distinctive because he was buried in a peat bog around 400 BCE, and the conditions in the bog preserved his body. When two people were cutting peat in 1950, they discovered his naturally mummified body, which was so perfectly preserved that they thought they had stumbled upon a fresh corpse. They reported the find to the police, who were puzzled until they brought in an archaeologist; the archaeologist realized that far from being a fresh body, the Tollund Man represented a major historical discovery.

Archaeologists can reconstruct the faces of mummified bodies in order to learn more about them.
Archaeologists can reconstruct the faces of mummified bodies in order to learn more about them.

Peat bogs are unique environments. They are formed through the slow decomposition of moss, grasses, and other plant material which accumulate in a marsh which cannot drain properly. If the weather is cold enough, it slows the decomposition of this plant material, promoting a damp, acidic environment which slowly starts to carbonize the plants. The result is peat, which will turn into coal if it is left alone long enough. Tollund Man is one among several bodies which have been found in bogs; if the conditions are right, the acidic water of the bog will mummify animals and people buried in the bog. Peat has been used as a source of fuel for centuries, and some early European cultures associated peat bogs with mysticism, offering sacrifices to the peat and carrying out ceremonies near peat bogs.

Damp, acidic environments often preserve ancient bodies.
Damp, acidic environments often preserve ancient bodies.

The man appears to have been one such sacrifice. He was found naked except for a cap and a leather belt, along with a twisted leather rope around his neck; scientists believe he was hanged. He had been arranged into a sleeping pose, and his mouth and lips were closed by someone who buried him. Far from being a dumped body, Tollund Man appears to have been cared for and respected.

At the time that he was found, his internal organs were investigated, and the contents of his stomach and intestines revealed that his last meal was a grain porridge. The porridge contained grain which had been contaminated with ergot, a fungus which causes hallucinations. Some archaeologists believe that the man may have ingested this porridge deliberately, perhaps as part of the religious ceremony in which he was sacrificed.

Conservators carefully preserved the head of Tollund Man, which can be seen on display at the Silkebord Museum in Denmark. The body, unfortunately, was not preserved, although parts of his bones and tissues do remain. The museum built a wax replica of the body, so that the display looks much like the man when he was originally found.

Studies on Tollund Man suggest that he was about 40 years old, and probably in good health although a bit short. He was found in extremely good condition, even for a bog body, and he contributed to the body of knowledge on what life was life for Europeans during the Stone Age.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


A find like this can go a long way to explain what a culture was like at the time this body was set there.

Funeral rites and sacrifice areas are rich with clues to the ways of a culture. Religious burials have been seen all over the world. Tombs and crypts can give you a pattern of religious movements in the past. Even cultures that were nomadic can be tracked in this way.

Much data can be gained by comparisons of these burial rights. We learn by seeing what they have in common, as well as what they do different.

The tombs can be an example of what these people thought were important. It can show you how evolved the culture was with the writings in the general area. It can show you how they dressed, what their family structure was like and how they viewed death.

In the case of Tullund Man it gives a picture of the burial rights of this culture with a lot of clarity. A pristine body gives scientists a lot of data to compile.

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