The Swamp Mummies

swamp mummies

Have you ever heard of the phenomenon called peat tanning? This is a condition that occurs when a corpse is placed in a swamp containing humic acids.

The peat tanning acts as a natural preserver of dead bodies. The skin of the corpse affected by the tanning becomes dark brown as if made from oak.


The internal organs shrink in size, and under the effects of the humic acids, the mineral salts in the bones dissolve and completely wash off from the corpse. In this state, the bones have a consistency much like that of cartilage. The bodies in the swamps are preserved for long periods of time and when they are examined, forensic experts are able to observe traumas that occurred before dead. Although such cases are very rare, some swamps can yield big surprises for explorers.

There are some weird swamps on our planet, known for an abundance of creepy but priceless archaeological discoveries. Those are the “human organ swamps” in Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.

Probably the most famous of the swamp mummies is the Tollund man, found in 1950 in Tollund (Denmark) by two brothers who were out collecting peat. They were cutting the peat into bricks, when suddenly a face appeared in front of them. They thought the body was a victim of a recent crime, so they immediately contacted the local police. The radiocarbon dating showed that the Tollund man had died around 350 BC.


Another ancient Dutchman was found perfectly preserved in 1952 in a swamp near Grauballe. Based on the large cut on his throat, the poor man was killed and thrown in the swamp.


A victim of decapitation, the so called man from Osterby, found in a swamp near the town, gives archeologists a clue as to how adult men from the ancient Germanic tribes wore their hair.

This hairstyle is called a “suebi knot”. The hair of this dead man was grey at first but became reddish, after soaking in the murky peat swamp.


The acidic water, low temperature, and lack of oxygen are all the right conditions for preservation of a dead body. The internal organs, hair, and skin are so perfectly preserved that we can see exactly what his hairstyle was, as well as what he ate before his death, and even what he wore 2000-2500 years ago.


Around 2000 swamp people are found to this day. The most popular are the Tollund man, the Elling woman, the Yde girl, the body from Windeby, and the Lindow man.

According to radiocarbon dating most of the mummies are around 2000-2500 years old, although much older mummies exist.

For example, the Kelberg woman (photo below) had died around 10 000 years ago.


Thanks to the bodies with preserved hair, we can reconstruct the hairstyles of the ancients. The Clonycavan man had braided his hair with the help of a mixture of resins and vegetable oil, while the hairs on the skull of the Osterby man were gathered above the right ear and braided into a “suebi knot”, which confirmed the descriptions made by Tacitus.