The most visited museum in Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a national museum of history and culture, has never avoided controversy; nor has it shied away from telling the stories of human history, “warts and all.”
In presenting The Mysterious Bog People, the first-ever international tour of an outstanding exhibition that gives a glimpse of 10,000 years of human ritual and sacrifice in Europe, the museum brings us face to face not only with prehistoric ancestors of modern human beings – especially anyone of European descent – but it also challenges us to assess the fundamental nature of our species.
This Canadian-German-Dutch collaboration is a unique presentation of archeological and ethnological treasures which re-emerged from the ancient peat bogs of northwestern Europe where they were deposited by humans thousands of years ago. As priceless objects for cultural studies, the artifacts include amazingly well-preserved items: handmade pottery, roughly-hewn wooden wheels, bronze weapons, jewellery, antlers, simple musical instruments, leather shoes, gold coins, agricultural tools, and even grain. The handcrafted items are in such an excellent state of preservation and show signs of having actually been used, that it is easy to imagine individuals actually owning and using them. Most astonishing however, are the human remains, mummified by the peat bogs that covered much of the area after the last Ice Age. Collectively the artifacts tell a story that is both captivating and disquieting.
The objects and human remains that were discovered in these immense reservoirs of the past were placed there deliberately. And it is clearly evident that the humans were interred in the muck of the bogs after suffering violent deaths, thrown into the bogs as offerings along with the ordinary stuff of daily life. And this theme of the offering, common throughout human history, is highlighted in the exhibition.
As you walk through the dimly-lit, narrow, and curving display areas of The Mysterious Bog People, you are enclosed in a murky environment. This is also museum theatre in which a dramatic setting created in part by macabre lighting and sound attracts and intensifies the viewer’s attention. As your vision gradually adapts to the low levels of light, the artifacts also begin to emerge into your field of vision. The calculated arrangement of the various items hints at the indiscriminate way in which they were assigned to the bogs. Like many modern museums the curators know how and why ambiance, context, and narrative engage the visitor on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. This is history – but also a good story – in which the events are pieced together and re-enacted using the combined skills of archeologists, ethnologists, and forensic scientists. As you proceed through the mournful exhibit, an unsettling awareness of the darker side of human behaviour emerges. Imagination and inference play equal roles in this depiction of elements from our discomforting social history.
It is significant that some of the first bog people who were recovered were in such a good state of preservation that they were assumed to have been recent murder victims and therefore initially became the objects of criminal investigations. And in this exhibit the mummified remains, which date from 8000 BCE to the early medieval period, are – as you would expect – the most poignant. The 16-year-old girl from the Dutch village of Yde, whose features – blue eyes, high forehead, and reddish-blonde hair – are reconstructed by the forensic artist Richard Neave using advance scientific techniques, personifies the human sacrifice that dominates the exhibit. She was discovered in 1897 by two workers cutting peat in the area. When her blackened head and reddish hair emerged on the surface of the bog water, they thought they had seen the devil and fled. The girl’s mummified body was eventually recovered becoming an object of great curiosity locally. Before being transferred to a museum however, villagers removed teeth from her mouth and strands of hair from her scalp. A woollen band around her throat indicates that she was strangled. With her remains was also found a worn woollen cloak.
For me, however, the two Weerdinge Men best evoke the tragic lives preserved in the bog. Their desiccated bodies are displayed side by side and seem to express in a timeless non-verbal language a kind of conversation in progress. Each appears to strike a casual pose; both men’s legs are crossed at the ankles as if they are standing on one foot in a relaxed posture engaged in light banter about some ordinary event. They were committed to the bog together between 160 BCE and 220 ACE. The intestines of one of them protrude from a stab wound on his left side. Like most of the casualties of the bogs they died violently.
Bogs, both medium and metaphor of this exhibit, are poorly drained, peat-filled depressions filled with sphagnum mosses, shrubs, and dark low conifers. Their water tables are close to the surface and often appear as open pools of water. That water is highly acidic and very low in oxygen, which prevents the growth of many micro-organisms. This in turn is why organic material – human flesh and wood for example – undergoes little decay. The evidence of the rituals enacted long ago are thus preserved.
Inhabiting the wetlands of the extensive bogs that existed in this part of Europe was of course impossible and therefore the terrain played a critical role in determining where these prehistoric humans could live, or more correctly, could not. It was a hazardous environment in which to exist; as the bogs expanded, the area where humans could live grew even smaller. From a short distance, a bog gives the impression of solidity and yet for the humans living in Europe 10,000 years ago, they were treacherous watery traps. And for many thousands of years the non-deteriorating organic material accumulated in layers in the bogs concealing their contents until the 17th century when drainage techniques were developed that allowed for the harvesting of peat for fuel, a labourious and miserable work. Towards the end of the exhibit the grim desolation of life harvesting peat from the bogs is underscored by a rare and dark painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Far more than peat was harvested, however. Among the artifacts in this exhibit is the Pesse dugout canoe discovered in 1955 and carbon dated between 8040 BCE and 7510; the oldest known boat in the world. Carved out of Scots pine, this wooden boat is an astonishing example of the preservative power of a bog.
For the ancient people who are the subjects of this special exhibition, the perilous bogs took on a greater conceptual significance. For all practical purposes, these humans were entrapped in their surroundings. Because of the danger inherent in the bogs – and the perceived evil that lurked in mists and fog that further hid their deadly intentions – the bogs became spirits to be appeased with offerings. And what was thrown into the bogs as offerings of appeasement or wish fulfilment were objects of value, above all human offerings. These people were well aware of the inconstant nature of fate and like many of their descendants, they engaged in bog rituals in an attempt to control that fate.
The Mysterious Bog People was designated one of the Top 100 Events in North America in 2003 and a museum of civilization is an appropriate venue for such an exhibit. However “civilization” is a word that, in terms of this exhibit especially, requires a little more thought. It has been our tendency, especially where museum-going is concerned, to presume that examining the history of civilization is to experience advancement, the achievements of a literate and highly aesthetic society, civility, refinement, and enlightenment. However “civilization” is not comprised solely of those human experiences that fulfill our contemporary beliefs of “high culture.” If we are to read the story of human civilization we must realize that the humans who are the subject of The Mysterious Bog People are also who we are. And we should not miss the fact that this is an exhibit that also shows significant human skill development, the development and interaction of communities, and the struggle with an ungrateful land. These were also humans with a spirituality that envisioned powerful supernatural forces and the existence of evil. This is the story of a people who made sacrificial offerings for the presumed well-being of the majority, but to the obvious detriment of hapless individuals.
In contemporary human civilization there is no shortage of bogs, and there is every reason I suppose to feel disheartened by the progress we have or have not made over the last 10,000 years. However the examination of the human condition in exhibitions like The Mysterious Bog People does provide an important perspective and is in itself a significant means to an end.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, is a unique institution. Its 25,000 square metres of exhibition space provides almost endless opportunities for understanding who we are as a species. The diversity and innovativeness of the exhibits and the constantly changing special exhibits put this museum in the world-class category. You can access its website at www.civilization.ca.