Today was the first wet day of the holiday so we took a drive an hour up the road to Silkeborg to see The Tollund Man, the naturally mummified corpse of a man who lived during the 4th century BC, during the time period characterised in Scandinavia as the Pre-Roman Iron Age.
Unearthed in 1950, the head and face were so well preserved that he was mistakenly thought at first to be a recent murder victim. An essay on the Silkeborg Museum website describes the discovery:
Tollund Man was laying in a relaxed position, his legs bent against his abdomen. His face was alarmingly well-preserved, his lips, nose, eyelids, eyebrows, wrinkles, stubble, hair – a face with its quite personal features, yet common to all mankind. The naked body had been placed in the peat bog, like a sleeping body, a cap on his head, a belt round his waist. A braided leather rope around his neck unveiled the cause of death: by hanging. Behind the apparent peace and tranquility was a glimpse of horror and drama.
Why Tollund Man was hanged and buried in the peat bog we shall never know. But his fellow men did not treat him like a criminal: after he died, they carefully closed his eyes and mouth and carried him to the peat bog, where he was laid to rest with care. This bears witness to a dignified burial. Thus it is reasonable to see Tollund Man as a human sacrifice to the god or gods. Maybe to the god of the bog, he who gave men peat and other goods. Early Iron Age societies cremated their dead, only bog bodies had a different burial – perhaps the gods would be appeased by a whole body only and not by burnt bones.
The mystery surrounding the figure of the Tollund Man is intriguing, but wasn’t what I focused on when literally face to face with him. His peaceful, almost slumbering features seem to generate an atmosphere of quiet which encourages reflection. Looking at the face of a man who lived and died over two thousand years before I was born provoked first a humbling reaction in which I couldn’t help but consider my own all too finite life. The Tollund Man underlines the transience of our existence more eloquently than any words might, true, but as I stood looking at him I realised that his existence, his preservation and discovery, also showed the power of a human life to transcend the years of its span. The Tollund Man literally made a mark upon the planet, imprinting himself in it’s earth to be discovered thousands of years later and, despite its mummified nature, you can’t help but look at the face of the Tollund Man and see someone who once lived and breathed and walked this earth so many, many years ago.
Driving back, I discussed these thoughts with my wife who responded by describing The Tollund Man as ‘literally the face of history.’ What brought him to be hanged and buried in a bog may never be fully revealed but that’s unimportant, at least for me, next to what we can be made to realise about ourselves as individuals or as a collective humanity simply by staring this slice of human history in the face, what we can be made to realise about our contradictory nature, our transience and our permanence as we walk our short path across the world.
And if you are ever in the area, I’d recommend a trip to Silkeborg to view the remains of this mysterious, thought-provoking figure.