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Archaeology, like many academic words, comes from Greek and means, more or less, ‘the study of old things’. So, it is really a part of the study of history. However, most historians use paper evidence, such as letters, documents, paintings and photographs, but archaeologists learn from the objects left behind by the humans of long ago. Normally, these are the hard materials that don’t decompose or disappear very quickly – things like human bones and skeletons, objects made from stone and metal, and ceramics.
Sometimes, archaeologists and historians work together. Take, for example, the study of the Romans, who dominated the Mediterranean area and much of Europe two thousand years ago. We know a lot about them from their writing, and some of their most famous writers are still quoted in English. We also know a lot about them from what they made, from their coins to their buildings. Archaeologists have worked on Roman remains as far apart as Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England and Leptis Magna in Libya.
Of course, for much of human history, there are no written documents at all. Who were the first humans, and where did they come from? This is a job for the archaeologists, who have found and dated the bones and objects left behind. From this evidence, they believe that humans first appeared in Africa and began moving to other parts of the world about 80,000 years ago. The movement of our ancestors across the planet has been mapped from their remains – humans went to Australia about 70,000 years ago, but have been in South America for just 15,000 years. The evidence of archaeology has helped to show the shared origin and history of us all.
It is very unusual to find anything more than the hard evidence of history – normally, the bacteria in the air eat away at soft organic materials, like bodies, clothes and things made of wood. Occasionally, things are different.
A mind-boggling discovery
In 1984, two men made an amazing discovery while working in a bog called Lindow Moss, near Manchester in the north of England. A bog is a very wet area of earth, with a lot of plants growing in it. It can be like a very big and very thick vegetable soup – walk in the wrong place and you can sink and disappear forever. After hundreds of years, the dead plants can compress together and make ‘peat’, which is like soil, but is so rich in energy that it can be burned on a fire, like coal.
The men were cutting the peat when one of them saw something sticking out – a human foot! Naturally, the men called the police, who then found the rest of the body. Was it a case of murder? Possibly – but it was a death nearly two thousand years old. The two men had found a body from the time of the Roman invasion of Celtic Britain. Despite being so old, this body had skin, muscles, hair and internal organs – the scientists who examined him were able to look inside the man’s stomach and find the food that he had eaten for his last meal!
Why was this man so well preserved? It was because he was in a very watery environment, safe from the bacteria that need oxygen to live. Also, the water in the bog was very acidic. The acid preserved the man’s skin in the way that animal skin is preserved for leather coats and shoes.
How did he die? Understandably, archaeologists and other scientists wanted to know more about the person that they called ‘Lindow Man’. His hands and fingernails suggested that he hadn’t done heavy manual work in his life – he could have been a rich man or a priest. They found that he hadn’t died by accident. The forensic examination revealed that he had been hit on the head three times and his throat was cut with a knife. Then a rope was tightened around his neck. As if that wasn’t enough, he was then thrown into the bog.
So, Lindow Man was killed using three different methods, when just one would have been sufficient. The archaeologists believe that he was sacrificed to three different Celtic gods, called Taranis, Esus and Teutates. Each god required a different form of death. A sacrifice to Teutates required drowning, which is why he was found in the bog. Nobody can tell the complete story of Lindow Man. The Romans said that the Celts made sacrifices every May to make sure that there was enough food that year. Was he a typical ‘routine’ sacrifice?
An archaeologist called Anne Ross has suggested that Lindow Man was a special case. Why would an important man be sacrificed to three gods? Perhaps it was in response to the Roman invasion of Britain, which started in the year AD 43, close to the time that Lindow Man died. He might have been killed to gain the help of the gods against the Romans. It didn’t work. The Romans stayed in Britain for four hundred years and Lindow Man stayed in his bog for two thousand.
Say hello to Lindow Man
If you visit London, you can go and see Lindow Man at the British Museum, where he is spending some time in the company of more famous mummies from Egypt. Whereas the bodies of the Egyptian kings and queens were intentionally preserved, Lindow Man is with us by accident. Whatever his origins, it is a fascinating experience to see him face-to-face. I recommend it.