The 2,000-Year-Old Body that didn’t Decompose

On the outskirts of Wilmslow in Cheshire, England, in the 1980’s a man began searching for a piece of a corpse that looked fresh but was actually more than a thousand years old. Andy Mold was working on an operation that collected peat from Lindow Moss’s pulses.  On May 13, 1983, he thinks of leather football but becomes the head of a man.

He didn’t realize it until he washed it off and saw an eyelid staring at him from inside the jawless skull. The head – or whatever was in it – was well preserved; the skin and hair, as well as the eyeballs, were still intact. When police inspected it, in fact, they believed it was a woman who went missing from the area 20 years ago. They soon learned that it was more than 1,600 years old, but before that, her husband had already confessed to her murder.

A year later, Andy Mold was overseeing the peat collection when he noticed an unusual jolt. “We cleaned it up a bit, and then we saw the toenails,” he said of the second search. The body was better preserved than the first. Police were called again, and signs of violence were found on the man’s body, including evidence of minor injuries and suffocation. But again it eventually fell under the disposal of archaeologists, making this body nearly 2,000 years old for carbon dating.

So, how is a body so well preserved for so long? Under normal circumstances, your body will decompose completely before you celebrate your 100th death anniversary. In a century, and your clothes, flesh, tendons, and even clothes will be broken, there will be nothing but teeth in your coffin. However, under certain circumstances that process can be slow – sometimes in extraordinary amounts. Peat is formed through the decomposition of organic matter, mainly from plant materials such as algae. Specifically, while sphagnum algae accumulate in sufficient amounts in wetlands to form a bug, the peat layers form acids that are incredibly good at preserving the body.

Fall into one of these – or get killed or sacrifice and throw one of them – and when you discover centuries later, you can very well see that someone fell yesterday while playing costume as a killer 400 BC farmer. Caroline Marshall explained in a Ted speech about the bog body, now known as Lindow Man. “In addition to the cold northern European temperatures, these conditions make it impossible for most germs to function.” “They have nothing to break down. Dead algae pile up, preventing oxygen from entering the bug. The result is a naturally sealed system. Any organic matter that enters the pit bug just sits there – like Lindow Man.”