TikTok creators often make “get ready with me” videos, inviting viewers to look on as they comb their hair, apply makeup, and don their OOTD (outfit of the day). But in their take on the viral trend, Ella Rockart was wearing a look inspired by an OOTD that’s survived more than two millennia. “Get ready with me,” they said, “except it’s 350 BCE and I’m about to be a human sacrifice—at least that’s what some historians think.”
Huldremose Woman, the bog body whose Iron Age fashion Rockart recreated, was discovered in Danish peatland in the late nineteenth century. She’s one of hundreds of mummified corpses that have been pulled from bogs in countries like Denmark, Germany, and Ireland, inspiring decades of scientific research and art by figures as illustrious as Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and as obscure as pseudonymous internet poets. If you’re not of a squeamish bent, the misshapen faces and bodies of these ancients can hold a powerful allure—one that, among contemporary social media users, seems to most often attract the interest of non-binary people and women.
Bog bodies, “are very much like us, we can see ourselves in them,” University of California, Berkeley professor and Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination author Karin Sanders told me. “And at the same time, they’re not. They have become something else, mummified remains from a past that we know very little about.”
“There is something about that tension,” Sanders said. “They spark our imagination and we fill in all the blanks.”
While decomposition can reduce a human body to a skeleton within just a few months of death, peat bogs, which are highly acidic and low in oxygen, can inhibit bacterial decay while tanning human flesh like leather. Corpses pulled from bogs have been so well-preserved that they’re mistaken for recent murder victims despite being thousands of years old. Some bog bodies, like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, and Yde Girl, are among the best-known mummies in the world, but they’re not the only remnants of the past that peatlands have yielded. Bogs have also preserved artifacts like wagons and grave goods in Denmark, and hundreds of pounds of bog butter in Ireland, which may have been left as an offering to the gods or placed in the bogs for their preservative properties, like an Iron Age refrigerator.
And despite being very old and rather gruesome—or perhaps because of this—bog mummies have found fans on social media. On TikTok, more than eight million people have viewed Rockart’s Huldremose Woman videos since they began posting them late last month. “Oh to be mysteriously found in a bog,” one young woman commented on Rockart’s original video. On Tumblr, one user dressed up as a bog body this Halloween (though people kept mistaking them for an “Irish zombie”), while another created a sketch of perhaps the most famous bog body, Tollund Man.
Rockart, 22, attends Wellesley College and made their costume as the final project for an archaeology class. As they demonstrate in their viral videos, Huldremose Woman had been placed in the bog while wearing an elaborate outfit that included a shift, a blue plaid skirt and red scarf, as well as two cloaks. She also had accessories, including an amber bead necklace and a finely-wrought comb made of bone. Her inner cloak had been patched 22 times, so Rockart cut 22 holes in their version, too. The videos they’ve posted in the clothes range from educational explanations of Huldremose Woman’s discovery and still-unknown cause of death, to playful takes on TikTok trends. But while the outfit was a school project, their interest in mummies long predates college. “I don’t remember a time before I was aware of bog mummies,” Rockart told me.
I also first became fascinated with bog bodies as a kid, spending hours pouring over library books filled with glossy photos of the unimaginably well-preserved bodies and artifacts that sometimes accompanied them. My favorite was Denmark’s aforementioned Tollund Man, of course, with his famously serene and life-like face and stubble beard, his calm expression broken only by the noose still around his neck. I followed news of Ireland’s Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man, both found in 2003, whose bodies contained fascinating details about their lives, like the fact that Clonycavan Man’s hair was styled with imported pine resin, in an early take on today’s fancy hair products. And when I visited London, one of my top priorities was seeing Lindow Man, who lies, shriveled and distorted, 2000 years old but still very much a person, in a dim case at the British Museum.
The ever-evolving mystery surrounding who bog people were and how and why they died is a major of their appeal. Due to their often violent deaths (Lindow Man, for example, was garroted and beaten before drowning in a bog in Northern England), and the fact that the usual Iron Age funerary rites featured cremation, it’s been theorized that some bog bodies were human sacrifices or victims of execution or murder. Still, other bog people might have succumbed to accidental drowning, which is a definite possibility in wetlands, as mummy expert Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking learned first hand. “If you are not well prepared, you can step off incredibly easily,” she told me. “The first day I was out in the field, I went up to my waist in peat.”
In researching her book, which examines the ways in which artists and thinkers have analyzed and responded to bog bodies, Sanders found “that there was certainly a lot of interest from women artists and poets,” she said, “not just seeing them through nostalgic eyes or, just sort of clear links back to history, but look[ing] at them as liminal human beings, people that were not one thing or the other.” The bodies, partially desiccated, partially pristine, recall the ancient architectural ruins that so fascinated artists of the Romantic era, and inspired their musings on death and eternity. And while some of the art and poetry of social media’s bog body fans may not quite be “Ozymandias,” they often reflect a familiar, deeply-felt yearning. “Bog mummy take me away,” wrote one Tumblr poet last year, “float me out on your swamp waters/lay me down in a bed of moss/let me rest here with my mothers.”
“I think that there’s something very exciting existing within a liminal space in a society, like between gender, between an acceptable way of being, and then also seeing these these liminal bodies,” said Rockart—bodies suspended between land and water, between antiquity and the present, between all that science can tell us about their lives and all that remains unknown.
Of course, the curiosity these bodies generate can be at odds with peaceful and respectful repose. “These are people. They don’t suddenly stop becoming people because they’ve died,” Gill-Frerking told me. “I know there are people who believe that you can separate a body and a soul, but that may not have been their way of thinking.” In recent years, debate surrounding appropriate treatment of human remains has ramped up, as museums and other institutions have been pressed to return the bodies of enslaved people and others whose bodies were treated as the spoils of Western imperialism.
“I think at the point where I am now, the question of whether or not I feel comfortable looking at someone’s dead body in a museum display is if they were intentionally preserved. Especially if they were intentionally preserved and they were wealthy,” Rockart told me. “I don’t feel bad about looking at their body because that was their choice.” Huldremose Woman’s elaborate and richly-dyed clothing suggest that she may have been a high-status person in her world, and it’s possible that Iron Age Europeans viewed becoming a human sacrifice as an honor and were willing participants in their deaths. To Rockart, viewing other types of mummified bodies—like those of children who bear signs of malnutrition—feel out-of-bounds.
Gill-Frerking, whose work has placed her face-to-face with bog bodies, told me that she thinks it’s important for the mummy-curious to ask ourselves, “‘Do I want to go just because it’s a cool thing to see a dead body,’ And then ask yourself, if it’s just a cool thing to see a dead body, then, OK, would you like to see a dead body from last week? That may not be appropriate.”
When I’ve visited Lindow Man, I’ve been moved by the sight of a person who’s been able to survive, in some diminished way, across millennia. Still, instead of inspiring more high-minded meditations, the visits have mostly me to think about my own death, and what I’d like my afterlife to look like. There is something narcissistic, if perhaps unavoidable, about turning the bodies of others into vehicles for self-knowledge, even if that self-knowledge can be couched in more universal ideas about history or the human condition. In her book, Sanders quotes Seamus Heaney, writing of bog bodies in 1999: “Once upon a time, these heads and limbs existed in order to express and embody the needs and impulses of an individual human life. They were the vehicles of different biographies and they compelled singular attention, they proclaimed ‘I am I,’” he wrote. “But when a corpse becomes a bog body, the personal identity drops away; the bog body does not not proclaim ‘I am I;’ instead it says something like, ‘I am it’ or ‘I am you.’”
Curiosity isn’t the only threat we moderns pose to the watery dead’s restful repose. Bogs, which, with their ability to absorb large amounts of CO2, can help fight climate change, are themselves also under threat by it. Nearly half of European peat bogs are more dry now than they have been for the last thousand years. “Once you take the wet out of the peat where these bodies are preserved, oxygen gets in and the bodies disintegrate very quickly,” said Gill-Frerking. “And so if we’re ever going to have a chance of finding any more of these bodies in the future, we need to make sure that the wetlands are maintained.”
For her part, Gill-Frerking would like to be buried in one of the bogs she’s studied. “It’s an ecologically friendly burial, you don’t have to put me in anything to put me in the bog,” she said. “They can bury me with my medical records, dig me up in pieces, if you want, I don’t care, and study the effects. I absolutely would love to do that.”
Rockart, who realistically wants to be cremated, has also imagined what it would be like to become a bog person like Huldremose Woman. “I probably would want to be buried in a historical costuming thing,” they said. “I want them to dig me up and be like, ‘An ancient!’”