Pools of Violence
On 13 May 1983 two men working on commercial peat extraction at Lindow Moss, near Wilmslow, Cheshire, noticed a round object about 20cm diameter on the conveyor belt of the elevator. It was their responsibility to remove any objects that could damage the shredding mill. They joked it could be a “dinosaur egg” but after washing it off with a hose they found it to be a human skull with an eyeball and some hair still intact. The skull was taken to the police.
At that time the Macclesfield Police had been investigating an unsolved murder. During an interview two suspects of another crime told the police of a former cellmate who had boasted of murdering his wife. The man claimed to have disposed of his wife’s body twenty years earlier in 1960 by dismembering her body and burning her remains. At that time he lived in a property that backed on to Lindow Moss; the skull was found just 300 metres from his back garden. Earlier that year in January when first interviewed by the police the man denied murdering his wife and investigations in the garden failed to produce any evidence; to date, remains of his wife’s body have never been found. But when the police informed him of the discovery of the skull in May he made a full confession.
Yet when the police submitted the skull to archaeologists to determine its age it proved to be around 1,800 years old meaning the woman lived during the 2nd century, the Romano-British period. The skull was therefore not related to the murder enquiry at all but the man was convicted of the murder of his wife owing to his confession. The skull was said to have belonged to a woman of 30-50 years age and named accordingly as Lindow Woman (or Lindow I) by archaeologists.
The discovery of Lindow Woman has striking similarities to a find in a peat bog some 25 years earlier a little further north in a peat bog near Salford. On 18th August 1958 John Connelly, an employee of the Lancashire Moss and Litter Company, was walling peat blocks in an isolated spot when he noticed a black ball-shaped patch with matter inside and then what appeared to be a bit of neck. After making a rough search he found a piece of bone with teeth attached. No other body parts were found at the bog.
The remains were discovered just inside the Worsley boundary, about two miles from Astley Green. Worsley Moss is part of the Chat Moss peat bog complex in Salford, Lancashire, as such the head was named Worsley Man.
Initial examination suggested the head belonged to a male aged between 24-40 years of age and had been in the peat bog for probably less than a year. The head was then examined by a Home Office pathologist who determined that the remains consisted of “a portion of skull, an upper and a lower jaw, the first two and a half cervical vertebrae, some skin above the right ear, a two-inch section below the right ear, a one- inch strip of skin on the right side of the neck and a separate tooth”.
He suggested that Worsley Man was probably somewhere between one hundred and five hundred years old. As the cause of death had not been determined the coroner returned an open verdict and suggested the remains should be retained as a historic relic. They were donated to the Pathology Museum at the Manchester Medical School who passed the head of Worsley Man on to the Manchester Museum in 1992.
Further studies using modern technology have since revealed evidence of decapitation and a twisted cord embedded in the neck tissue suggestive of a ligature. The lack of decay is indicative that the head entered the bog soon after it was severed from the body. Evidence of sharp force trauma indicates Worsley Man experienced a violent death and suffered a minimum of three devastating blows: a non-fatal sword blow behind the right ear, a forceful axe wound on the top of the skull and finally decapitation. None of these injuries could be ascribed to damage caused by the peat cutters.
A sample of facial tissue was dated at 1,800 years old placing the man firmly within the Romano- British era. Further investigation carried out in 2010 subjected the head to a CT Scan which revealed a fragment of a sharp object embedded in the neck tissue. At first this was considered as the tip of a ceremonial bone spearhead. However, the “spear” in the neck appears to have been the fractured end of the temporal styloid process from the right-hand side of the head (a slender pointed piece of bone just below the ear) which sheared off during decapitation.
We don’t know if this was a formal execution or sacrifice. However the sheer number of blows inflicted on Worsley Man, which can only be described as overkill, seems to eliminate organised execution. Yet, as stated above, Worsley Man has striking similarities with Lindow Woman (Lindow I), and these are not the only examples of heads found in peat bogs. Had the peat cutters unearthed evidence of a cult of the head in northern England
On 1st August 1984, one year after the head of a woman had been pulled out of Lindow Moss, a man working on a peat cutting machine at the same peat bog pulled a long thin object off a conveyor belt. When the object hit the ground the loose peat fell off to reveal a human leg. The police were informed and the next day the county archaeologist Rick Turner visited the site and examined the cutting where the leg had been found.
At the edge of the cutting Turner noticed a flap of skin sticking out of the peat. On 6th August the block of peat containing the skin was lifted and taken to a local mortuary. Further peat was removed to reveal the remains of a body, which Turner suggested was at least a thousand years old. It was then moved to a special storage facility at the British Museum in London. Once all the peat had been removed it revealed the upper torso of a man with the head intact. He was named as Lindow Man (Lindow II). He was naked except for a fox-fur armband. Around his neck was a twisted cord made from animal sinew, on the top of his head and around his neck were signs of physical trauma.
Forensic examination of Lindow Man revealed the following injuries:
A v-shaped laceration to the top of the head delivered from a ferocious blow with a blunt edged weapon (possibly an axe) which pushed fragments of the skull into the brain. This blow was not fatal as bruising started to occur around the wound which suggests that although it no doubt knocked him unconscious Lindow Man could have have lived for several hours after delivery of the blow.
A laceration to the scalp at the back of the head was probably the result of a blow with a blunt weapon which fractured his skull. Other injuries include ligature marks to front and sides of the neck indicating the sinew necklace was used as a garrotte; a clean cut wound on the right side of the front of the neck made by a sharp instrument into the jugular vein; possible stab wound to right upper chest; several broken ribs; a fracture of the spine at the neck with his head twisted to the right at the point of break.
Further peat cutting at Lindow Moss was periodically monitored by Turner but no further discoveries where made until 1987 when over seventy body parts were found, including the back of an adult man, a hand and a leg (Lindow III). In June and September the following year parts of the buttocks, left leg and right thigh of an adult male were found in the bog (Lindow IV). As these parts were found just 15 metres from the discovery site of Lindow Man they were considered to be the missing parts of the same body, broken up during the peat excavation process.
Comprehensive sampling has indicated that Lindow Man died in the First Century (2 BC – AD119). His hair, now red due to the staining from the peat bog, was well groomed, beard and moustache trimmed and his nails filed. Residues of green pigmentation from high levels of copper on his skin was initially considered to be evidence of the ancient practice of body paint as observed on Iron Age peoples by the Romans and recorded by ancient historians. However scientific analysis has shown that these residues occur in peat bogs when organic remains are exposed to acid where oxygen is absent; it therefore seems unlikely that Lindow Man had been painted green as some early reports claimed.
Bog Bodies of Northern Europe
Bog bodies are found throughout the peatlands of Northern Europe. Lindow Man is without doubt the finest preserved example found in Britain, yet debate continues as to whether these bog bodies were victims of execution, murder or ritual sacrifice. Capital punishment for unlawful crimes, an execution victim, would usually be fulfilled in one blow, such as a straight beheading with a sharp weapon such an axe or sword. Occasionally it would take more than one attempt, but wounds would be concentrated in the same area as they literally hacked off the head. Unlawful killing would also typically result in death by a single blow, however it is possible several blows could have been dealt if a struggle ensued or torture was involved.
Yet many of the bog bodies have received significant weapon trauma; a forceful blow to the head that stunned the victim but was not usually fatal. Then the throat was cut, followed in many cases by decapitation. The garrotte found on many bog bodies indicates strangulation. Finally, if there was any chance of any life left in the victim he was thrown in the peat bog and drowned. This has been described as massive “overkill” and linked to the Celtic triple death. A ritual death and deposition in a liminal zone such as a peat bog, the threshold between water and land, the boundary between worlds, suggests sacrifice. The healthy condition of Lindow Man suggests he had been specifically selected, possibly from a young age, for this ritual ending and like many sacrificial offerings, probably went to his death without struggle.
Evidence of Celtic Triple Death?
We find literary evidence of these peculiar practices in Celtic literature such as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Although in their current form the “Four Branches” are held in Middle Welsh prose written down between the 11th and 13th centuries, these tales seem to be based on pre-Roman cultures which have been described as “one of the oldest and most complete repositories of British Celtic Myth”. The Second Branch features the Cult of the Head in which Bendigeidfran (Brân) is decapitated yet his head lives on after its removal from his body:
And then Bendigeidfran ordered the severing of his head.
‘Take the head’ said he ‘and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head. Cross over to the other side.’ [Trans. Will Parker]
In the Forth Branch, when asked how he can be killed Lleu Llaw Gyffes describes three conditions that will bring about his death:
‘It is not easy,’ he continued ‘to kill me by a blow. It would be necessary to spend a year making the spear to strike me with – and without making any of it [at any other time] except when one was at mass on Sundays.’
‘I cannot be killed inside a house, nor outside,’ he continued ‘I cannot be killed on horseback or on foot.’
‘Aye,’ said she ‘[so] in what way can you be killed?’
‘I’ll tell you,’ he replied. ‘By making a bath for me by the side of a river, making a curved, slatted roof over the tub, and thatching that well and without [leaving] any gaps. And bringing a buck,’ he continued ‘and putting it next to the tub, and me putting one of my feet on the buck’s back, and the other one on the side of the tub. Whoever would strike me [while I am] like that would bring about my death.’ [Trans. Will Parker]
Will Parker describes the Four Branches as containing all the “hallmarks of a primitive ‘magical’ consciousness, the legacy of its origins in the pre-Christian past”. Indeed, The Four Branches recall the ordeals of the Gods; The Children of Dôn and the family of Llyr. Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the hero of the Fourth Branch clearly relates to Lugus ‘the Gaulish Mercury’ and in the Second and Third Branches features Manawydan fab Llŷr, who also appears, probably owes his origin to a maritime cult prevalent in the Irish Sea area during the early centuries of the common era (Manannán mac Lír.
Indeed, Celtic scholar Anne Ross saw Lindow Man as a Druid Prince kept and nurtured for this special occasion. Ross argues that to the Celts the number three was sacred which may be reflected in the apparent triple death inflicted on these sacrifices to the gods of the Celts.
In the Pharsalia Lucan talks of three Gaulish gods, Teutates, Esus and Taranis that each required a certain form of sacrifice: drowning, hanging or stabbed to death or both, and burning respectively. A sacrificial victim could be offered to one god and killed by that god’s preferred method, or as seems likely with certain offerings such as Lindow Man, they were given to more than one god and several ritual methods of death, one after the other, used accordingly.
And now Lindow Man, this offering, this gift to the gods, sits in a class case presented to the public as a lonely exhibit at the British Museum in London as one of their most popular displays. For me this is a sad sight, I really am uncomfortable with this man being a museum piece to satisfy mankind’s morbid fascination with death. But that’s just me, I really don’t enjoy displays of human remains.
Lindow Moss – land of the peat cutters
It was noted above that no further bog bodies have been discovered at Lindow Moss since the late 1980s. It is now very unlikely there will be another discovery of this type at Lindow Moss as the owner has agreed to cease peat cutting and restore the bog. Lindow Man really could be the last of the bog bodies.
Continued in Part II – Landscape of Devastation
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