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In a man’s frugal last meal 2,400 years ago, scientists see signs of human sacrifice

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When the Tollund man was discovered 71 years ago in a swamp in Denmark, he was so well preserved that his finders believed he was the victim of a recent murder.

It took archaeologists to reveal that he had been thrown into the swamp nearly 2,400 years ago and had been hanged for the first time — a noose of braided animal skin was still wrapped around his neck. The careful arrangement of the body and face—his closed eyes and faint smile—suggested that he might have been killed as a human sacrifice, rather than executed as a criminal.

The suggestion that the Tollund man was killed as a human sacrifice has now been reinforced by a study of the condemned man’s frugal last meal, made on the basis of a detailed examination of the contents of his digestive tract: a porridge of barley, flax, and pale persicaria.

The seeds of pale persicaria hold the key to this Iron Age murder mystery, said archaeologist Nina Nielsen, head of research at Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum and the lead author of the study published Tuesday.

The large intestine of Tollund Man.Danish National Museum

The plant grows wild among barley crops, but evidence from Iron Age grain storage shows that it was usually cleared as weeds during threshing. That suggests it was part of “threshing waste” deliberately added to the porridge — perhaps as part of a ritual meal for those sentenced to die through human sacrifice.

“Was it just an ordinary meal? Or was threshing garbage something you only absorbed when people were eating a ritual meal?” said Nielsen. “We do not know that.”

The contents of the preserved guts of the Tollund Man were examined shortly after he was found. But the new study refines that initial research with vastly improved archaeological techniques and instruments.

“In 1950 they only looked at the well-preserved grains and seeds, not the very fine fraction of the material,” Nielsen said. “But now we have better microscopes, better ways to analyze the material and new techniques. So that means we can get more information out of it.”

In addition to revealing the clue to the threshing waste added to his last meal, the researchers found that it had likely been cooked in a clay pot — bits of overcooked crust can be seen in the spores — and that he had also eaten fish. They also found that he was suffering from several parasitic infections when he died, including tapeworms — likely from a regular diet of undercooked meat and contaminated water, Nielsen said.

Tollund Man’s intestinal contents.NH Nielsen

The Tollund Man is one of dozens of Iron Age swamp bodies between about 2,500 and 1,500 years ago that have been found throughout northern Europe. They were mummified in the swamps due to the low oxygen levels, low temperatures, and water acidified by the layers of decaying vegetation, or peat, found there.

A few appear to have been victims of accidents, possibly people who drowned after falling into the water. But most, like the Tollund man, were deliberately killed and placed in the swamps, with their bodies and features carefully arranged. Archaeologists believe they were selected as human sacrifices, possibly to avert an impending disaster like famine.

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, professor emeritus of history, archeology and religion at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and author of the book “Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery,” said the seeds of pale persicaria and other traces of threshing waste in the last porridge of the Tollund Man is further evidence that he was sacrificed.

“That reinforces the idea that he was either embarrassed by being fed something disgusting and horrific, or it actually reflected the fact that society was in a downward spiral where food was scarce,” she said.

The idea that the victims of human sacrifice were somehow “ashamed” before dying was also reflected in their burials in swamps, rather than the usual burials in tombs and dry graves, she said.

The preserving properties of swamps were well known to people in the Iron Age – many archaeological artifacts of the time, including pieces of expensive pottery, were also deliberately deposited there – and it could be that the preservation of a swamp body was intended to preserve it to preserve itself. to associate with his ancestors. Swamps were seen as gateways to another realm.

“If you put a body in the swamp, it wouldn’t perish — it would stay between the worlds of the living and the dead,” Aldhouse-Green said.

The ingredients of Tollund Man’s last meal, in relative amounts: A) barley seeds; B) pale persicaria; C) barley fragments; D) flax; E) black bindweed; F) “fat chicken” seeds; G) sand; H) hemp nettles; i) camelina; J) corn thorn; K) field pansy. PS Henriksen / Danish National Museum

Evidence suggests that threshing waste was added to the last meal of another Iron Age bog body found in Denmark in 1952, that of the Grauballe man, also thought to have been killed as a human sacrifice. Although more than 100 bog bodies have now been found, only 12 have been preserved well enough to allow analysis of their last meals, Nielsen said, and she now hopes to look for further evidence of the ritual practice.

The Tollund man now occupies a glass case in a special gallery in the Silkeborg Museum, where Nielsen can see him almost every day.

“You’re face to face with someone from the past,” she said. “He’s 2,400 years old – that’s really great.”

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