Ausgabe 26/2005

Corpses on the Moors A Vampire Graveyard in Northern Europe?

A 2,600-year-old corpse has been discovered in the moors of northern Germany. It's not the only one. Such finds are frequent, but have posed an increasingly large riddle: Why were so many of the bodies victims of violence and dismemberment?


The hand of the corpse discovered in the Uchter Moor in northern Germany.

The hand of the corpse discovered in the Uchter Moor in northern Germany.

Its blade plunging into the earth, the peat-cutting machine crept slowly through the Grosses Uchter Moor (Great Uchte Moor) in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. A worker stacked the sections of turf sliced free by the guillotine-like blade. Suddenly he paused, something having caught his eye. "What's this? An old leather jacket?"

It wasn't. In fact, what the worker had dredged from the moor was a large piece of human skin. It was followed by long bones, a foot, fingernails, an open ribcage and more and more hair, everything colored rust-red by acids in the bog.

The gruesome find was made in Sept. 2000, but it was only last week that the press got wind of it -- and hailed it as a sensation. It was, after all, the first time in 20 years that an ancient corpse had been pulled out of the German moors. "We're overjoyed," says Henning Hassmann of the State Office of Historic Preservation in Hanover.

The corpse found in the bogs is that of a teenage girl, between 16 and 19 years old -- and with perfect teeth. According to the radiocarbon dating method, the corpse is from 650 B.C., meaning she was likely part of an early Germanic tribe. But that wasn't immediately obvious. Because the well-preserved corpse was nude, the criminal investigation department concluded the girl had been the victim of a sex crime and sent the corpse to the forensic medicine department in Hamburg. But the forensic experts were unable to find any evidence of violence. The file was soon forgotten and began to gather dust. Only when peat-cutters -- working at the same location again in January 2005 --happened across more bones embedded in the moor did the officials begin questioning their earlier assessment.

Sliced up like a salami

The case has now been turned over to the State Office for the Conservation of Monuments and Archaeology, which says that the body has been "excellently" preserved -- indeed, comparisons have been made to Oetzi, the perfectly preserved, 5,000-year-old mummy pulled from an Alpine glacier in 1991. The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine was also enthusiastic. The "delicate hand" of the dead girl, the paper wrote, is "curved, as if it had been drawn in prayer by Albrecht Duerer."

But the truth isn't quite so poetic. During the harvesting of peat for nurseries, the machine's blades sliced up the ancient Germanic tribeswoman like a salami. "We have 100 parts," Hassmann admits. One scapula and two ribs are missing entirely.

The 2,650-year-old corpse was shredded by peat harvesting machinery.

The 2,650-year-old corpse was shredded by peat harvesting machinery.

Out in Uchte Moor, dig supervisor Alf Metzler is busy searching for more bones and says that 90 percent of the skeleton has so far been recovered. Endoscopes and computer tomographs will soon examine the insides of the corpse -- the researchers will be looking for worms and pollen and scanning the skeleton for growth disorders and other anomalies.

Their initial findings are already perplexing. The girl had ventured deep into the bogs, which surprises the researchers. "The next hard-surface path was two kilometers away," says Metzler. The woman had nimbly hopped from hump to hump -- dry islands that were covered with heather and stunted trees, offering a person walking through the bogs solid ground.

The moor covered an area of several square kilometers and -- like many highland moors -- was often covered in fog. And it was dangerous -- anyone unlucky enough to slip into the hollows between the dry humps was a goner.

Did the woman commit suicide? Or was she fleeing from something? Perhaps she was just gathering birds' eggs. Metzler introduces another idea: He imagines that the woman may have been some sort of a witch who used herbs to practice her art and had ventured into the bogs to gather bilberries. The blue fruits have an intoxicating effect, and were used as a drug by the early Germanic tribes. But at this point, explanations are premature and nothing more than conjecture.

Beaten to death and buried in the moors

Pre-historic bodies found throughout Northern Europe.

Pre-historic bodies found throughout Northern Europe.

Around the time of Christ's birth, vast, foreboding highland moors covered the hinterlands along the North Sea coast. According to ancient sources, the farmers built their huts along the edges of these grassy swamps, and plank paths led through them. But despite precautions, people were constantly falling into the swamps. About a thousand moor corpses have reportedly been discovered, mainly in the Netherlands, northern Germany and Denmark. In some cases, the skin is well-preserved while the skeleton has decomposed -- leaving the corpses look like empty hoses.

These naturally preserved bodies keep revealing new details. The Danish "Tollund Man" was found wearing a leather cap. Others wore fine shoes or luxurious woven coats. Some mummies are tattooed, and some were found with apple seeds in their stomachs and round worms in their intestines.

Signs of violence are common among the moor corpses. Many were strangled or beaten to death before falling into their wet graves. Others had puncture wounds in their chests. The famous "Red Franz" was killed by a knife wound to his throat.


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