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.
1. See Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barraclough, p208. See also: http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=1029 and this article in the Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/laois-bog-body-said-to-be-world-s-oldest-1.1483171
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 http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_prb/l/lindow_man.aspx