Allison's Book Bag

Two Nonfiction Books on Bog Bodies

Posted on: April 17, 2012

I live near a peat bog in my home province of Newfoundland and so have taken an interest in reading more about this distinctive wet land. My research led me to two children’s nonfiction books on the topic of bog bodies, an interview with one of the authors, and a novel called Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd. Today I’m sharing my reviews of the nonfiction books, tomorrow the interview, and Thursday my review of Bog Child. Save the bog dates: April 17-19!

Sphagnum moss

Sphagnum moss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A peat bog is the most distinctive type of wetland. From their start as ponds or lakes, peat bogs eventually lose their water. Layers of dead plants pile up on the bottom, while layers of sphagnum moss grows on the surface. Eventually, sphagnum moss takes over the lake and prevents water from leaving the surface. The layers of sphagnum moss pack together and turn into peat, which build up into bogs.

Hundreds of bodies have been recovered from peat bogs and studied. Most of the bodies recovered in bogs have been found in Northern Europe, and these are the most famous, but a few have also been found right in North America. The two children’s nonfiction books I read on the topic of bog bodies focused on those unearthed in Europe.

BODIES FROM THE BOG

In his book on bog bodies, James Deem starts with the story of the discovery of the famous Grauballe Man from Denmark. In the spring of 1952, when a group of men were digging in a partially drained bog, they made an unexpected discovery. About three feet below the surface, their shovels struck the head of a man. That man has since become known as the Grauballe Man, whom scientists have examined to determine age, last meal, and probable cause of death. Feeling curious? So was I, proving that Deem did his job of creating a good lead chapter.

Next, Deem steps back in history to describe the earliest reports of bog bodies. The first written reports of such discoveries come from the 1600s. He briefly describes several of these accounts and includes many photos to illustrate his examples. Only after Deems has reeled us in with his multiple tales of death does he turn to the life in a bog. By now, we’re ready to read about how those cold watery bog graves came about.

A bog body dubbed "Lindow Man" at a ...

A bog body dubbed “Lindow Man” at a British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After discussing other important finds, which are less morbid and more the stuff of routine archeology, Deems steps forward again to talk about how scientists examine a bog body. Most telling in this chapter is how much and yet how little scientists know. I found it amazing that merely by studying the contents of a body’s stomach, scientists could figure out the season in which that person had died. At the same time, how a person died seems to remain mostly speculation. Perhaps they were criminals or sacrifices. On the other hand, they might just have been drowning victims or even suicides.

I appreciated how much Bodies from the Bog held my attention. Deems trusted the stories, facts, and photos of bog bodies to capture the attention of readers. The layout isn’t cute, the fonts aren’t playful, nor is the style aimed to please a juvenile audience. While this might result in its being passed over for brighter and bolder books, those with a serious interest in mummified bodies will find this a solid reference book. Deems even visited most of the museums with bog body exhibits and along the way found many experts to answer his questions.

BOG MUMMIES

In her book on bog bodies, Charlotte Wilcox starts instead with the story of the discovery of the famous Lindow Moss bog body. In May of 1983, two workers were loading chunks of peat onto an elevator . They stopped when they saw a flat, brown, and leathery object on the elevator. What looked at first like a soccer ball turned out to be a man’s head. Only a year later, in the summer of 1984, these same workers discovered what looked like a piece of wood but turned out to man’s leg.

At this point I was feeling curious, but also somewhat put off by the simplistic style: “On May 13, 1983, Andy saw an object on the elevator. It was flat, brown, and leathery. The plant manager looked at the object. He thought it was an old soccer ball.” Given that I work with elementary students regularly on research papers, I realize the need for such a simplistic style. Even so, I felt as if I were reading an old Dick and Jane reader. It didn’t help that the titles, captions, and even page numbers had bold and angled boxes around them. In contrast to Bog Bodies by James Deem, I felt as if the information wasn’t being allowed to speak for itself. Rather, the design had been deliberately jazzed up to draw in readers.

After sharing stories of famous bog discoveries, Wilcox presents an informational chapter about how bogs form mummies. Most bodies decay after death. However, bodies in peat bogs do not decay because conditions in bogs prevent growth of bacteria and fungi. Then the sphagnum moss in a bog browns and softens the bodies. Because this process preserves bog bodies so perfectly, Scientists can then try to discover how bog mummies die . Despite earlier criticizing Wilcox’s simplistic style, I have to admit that I liked how understandable I found her explanation on bog origins.

Based on her bibliography, it seems as if Wilcox depended heavily on only a small number of sources for her research. Combining this limitation with the simplistic style and jazzed-up graphics, Bog Mummies seems like just another book. While it could serve as a good place to start reading about bog bodies, I’d encourage you to read beyond it as well to books like those by James Deem.

My rating? Read them: Borrow from your library or a friend. They’re worth your time.

How would you rate these books?

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