The Men in the Moss

Tollund Man Silkeborg Museum Denmark

Tollund Man, a well-preserved bog body from Denmark

Towards the end of May in 1834, a farmer digging for peat at Seascale Moor found human remains just one foot below the surface. The bones had been dissolved by the acidity of the moss, but the same process had tanned the skin like leather. The man was naked and buried with a long hazel rod. No one knows what happened to the remains.

On 25th May, 1845, a man was digging peat for his fire at Scaleby Moss, north of Carlisle. At a depth of nine feet, he came across human remains. The body was rather more than a skeleton, but a lot less than a mummy. It had hair, bones, intestines, ligaments and the remains of a brain. It was wearing a long deerskin cloak, and was accompanied by a thick wooden staff. The person had been slim and on the short side.

Investigators of the time recognised that the body was ancient, and it passed around various antiquarians until it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1893. Eventually it ended up in the National History Museum, who now can’t find it.

There are also old reports of human remains, coins and weapons at Solway Moss.

As the bodies have disappeared, dating has to be a guess. Going by the condition and depth in the moss, it’s likely that Seascale man met his end after 600BCE, which makes him of a similar date to most other bog bodies found across northern Europe. Scaleby man is much earlier; a similar body at a similar depth in an Irish peat bog1 has been carbon-dated to c.2000BCE. A date anywhere between that and 1000BCE is possible.

So, were both these chaps walking across the moss, hundreds of years apart, staffs in hand, when they fell and drowned in the bog? There are many examples of bog bodies across Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, most of which are buried with capes or cloaks made of deer skin or sheepskin, carefully sewn with white leather thongs, just like Scaleby man. They usually have staffs of hazel or birch, but their position shows that they’re not walking sticks; they were used to anchor the body under the shallow water of the bog.

Some of these bodies are sufficiently well-preserved to reveal the cause of death. The most famous of these is Lindow Man, who was found in at Lindow Moss near Manchester. He was garotted, hit on the head, and his throat was cut – a three-fold death2.

Classical sources3 have stories to tell about the Celtic ‘three-fold death’. The druids, we are told, chose people to sacrifice to a trio of gods, to protect the tribe from illness and to ensure the success of its warriors. Teutates, the father-figure god of the tribe, demanded sacrifice by drowning. Taranis, a sky-god whose name means, ‘thunderer’, preferred victims to be burned or hanged. Esus, god of the underworld, demanded stabbing and hanging. Lindow Man’s death would have appeased all three gods.

The Roman writers called the Celtic underworld god Esus but it’s likely that he was the British god Lugus, the Irish Celtic Lugh, whose name is preserved in the pagan harvest festival, Lughnasadh – and in the Roman name of Carlisle, Luguvallum. Lugus is a name of uncertain etymological provenance; all we can be sure is that it is very old and pre-dates the period usually associated with Celts.

Scaleby man and his Irish counterpart of similar age are quite extraordinary. They suggest a continuation of religious, and sacrificial, practice over many hundreds of years from their era throughout the Iron Age. Perhaps Scaleby man met a three-fold death at a location dedicated to the British god Lugus, long before the Romans came and attributed the practice to a race called Celts.

Let’s hope the National History Museum find Scaleby man one day.

©Diane McIlmoyle 22.03.11 

1. See Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barraclough, p208. See also: and this article in the Irish Times:

2. Lailoken was also said to have suffered a three-fold death.

3. Caesar, Diodorus and Cassius Dio.

For further reading, see chapter 8 of Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barrowclough, ISBN978-0-7524-5087-2

Read about Lindow Man on the British Museum’s website

17 thoughts on “The Men in the Moss

  1. If it’s correct that Scaleby man was there 4000m years ago, and that he was the victim of druidic sacrifice, the Celts were in the British Isles a lot earlier than I thought. The blood sacrifice doesn’t surprise me. Was it an honor to be the sacrificial victim? Did the family get taken care of?

    • Thanks for that, Steve – I’ve edited the post to make myself clearer. You’re absolutely right, of course: unlike virtually all other bog bodies, Scaleby man is too early for the ‘Celtic’ label and all that goes with it. His date is an educated guess based on a carbon-dated body found in Ireland – it could be wrong, but the reasons for suggesting it’s similar are sound (all of which is in David Barraclough’s book). The circumstances of the death look so similar to the usual, ‘Celtic’ bog bodies that it implies continuity of practice.

      Of course you’ll know that historians haven’t been happy about the application of the word, ‘Celt’, for some time, and we all know that the Romans were quite keen on offering a slightly hysterical view of the ‘barbarian’ races, so the accuracy of info on the ancient druids is in question. In which case, thank goodness for archaeology and the hard evidence on how these people died.

      The Roman sources said that the sacrifical victims were often criminals, although they used non-criminals if they needed a sacrifice and none were available. I don’t know what to conclude on the ‘honour’ front if this is correct.

  2. Very interesting, not least that The National History Museum can’t locate Scaleby Man.

    I’m very familiar with the three-fold death and my husband has carried out many years’ research into Tiw/Tuisto; Teutanes is a form of this name.

    Excellent article.

  3. Fascinating post. Made me wonder if we have any submerged bodies in the bogs/marshes north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was well known that the reiver’s knew how to skirt their way across and round them safely but pursuers would fall victim to them. Hmm..going to see what I can find out. xx

    • Hello Fiona! Well, you’d certainly think that the environmental conditions would be right. The thing about the bog bodies, though, is that they’re not believed to be accidental drownings, but sacrificial victims. Too many of them have assorted garottes around their necks, with heavy rods pinning them down, for it to be coincidence, and some writers towards the end of the relevant historical period even record these types of deaths. I’d love to know if you find any on your side of the Pennines.

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