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Mysteries of the dead

Centuries old and strikingly preserved, human bodies recovered from peat bogs are the centerpiece of a poignant -- and popular -- exhibition.

April 30, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

SOMETIME around the birth of Christ, while the Romans ruled the Mediterranean, the Han dynasty controlled most of East Asia and the ancient Bantu were spreading through the heart of Africa, a 16-year-old girl was led to a peat bog in northern Europe, stabbed, strangled and then dumped sacrificially into the tannic waters.

About 2,000 years later, in the soft light of an Ottawa museum room, Canadian writer Heather Pringle stared at the girl's desiccated remains and felt tugged by the strings of time. It was the feet that did it, small and vulnerable as they poked out from beneath ancient fabric. And the face too, after a computer expert used the skin-covered skull and a tuft of hair to create an image of a girl with blond ringlets framing a high forehead and strikingly blue eyes.

"I find her really astonishing and very poignant," said Pringle, author of "The Mummy Congress," a 2001 book about the small world of international mummification experts. "The lock of hair and so on -- that particular bog body seems very vulnerable, because it's a child as well."

This is the peculiar appeal of "The Mysterious Bog People" exhibition, the same traveling show that Pringle saw in Ottawa and which is on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County through Sept. 10. Where most anthropological exhibitions are built around objects, this show is built around flesh -- Yde, named for the village (in what is now the Netherlands) near where she was found, and five other human remains.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum exhibition on 'Bog People': An article in today's Calendar about "The Mysterious Bog People" exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County contains this sentence: "One, the head of 'Red Franz' -- not part of this exhibition -- has been so well preserved he looks asleep, the stubble of his beard sprouting from smooth skin." The description is actually of "Tolland Man," who is not in the exhibition. The "Red Franz" cadaver is included.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
"Bog People" exhibition: An April 30 correction for an article in that day's Sunday Calendar about "The Mysterious Bog People" show at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County misspelled the name of one of the bodies pulled from Northern European bogs. He is known as "Tollund Man," not "Tolland Man."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 07, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
'Bog People': An article last Sunday about "The Mysterious Bog People" exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County contained the sentence "One, the head of 'Red Franz' -- not part of this exhibition -- has been so well preserved he looks asleep, the stubble of his beard sprouting from smooth skin." The description is actually of "Tollund man," who is not in the exhibition. The "Red Franz" cadaver is included.

And in the odd and occasionally unfathomable way that modern society works, the collection of corpses has drawn large crowds in Europe, Canada and most recently at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where more than 60,000 people peered at the wrinkled remains before the exhibition closed in January.

"It was extremely popular and drew a lot of people who normally don't visit the museum -- the 21- to- 30-year-olds without kids," said Carnegie Museum spokesman Dan Lagiovane.

At the Los Angeles museum, about 67,000 people had taken in the show through Monday.

But imagine the reaction had the bodies under glass been dug up from 50-year-old graves instead of ancient bogs.

"People from the 1950s fall within our modern human family, and we're very protective of our kin," Pringle said by telephone from her home in Vancouver. "We don't want to see our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters on display like that when they are dead. That's a cultural taboo."

Stripped of the trappings of modernity, the bodies in the exhibition invite flights of fantasy about what our own lives might have been like had we lived then. Spurred by the physical traces of the ancient dead, we contemplate a society in which a girl like Yde could be killed, the trajectory of human evolution since then, and the tenuousness of existence itself.

We might live in a different era with different values, but we face the same eventuality. The phrase "the way of all flesh" echoes in the head.

And the recent successes of TV shows like the "CSI" franchise, which include occasional images of decomposing bodies, have helped inure the public to the more squeamish elements.

"They helped us market it a great deal," said Sandra Olsen, the Carnegie's curator of anthropology. "People are already accustomed to seeing these things on television, and they also have a feel for the kind of information you can get out of a corpse. They've been educated, Hollywood style, in forensics."

*

Accidental discoveries

THE exhibition consists of accidental discoveries. For several hundred years, peat cutters in northern Europe have stumbled across ancient remains buried deep in the bogs, as well as ax heads, ornate pottery and gold and silver coins.

About 400 such relics round out "The Mysterious Bog People," most of them laid out in glass cases under subdued lighting that lends an ethereal quality to the show. They are accompanied by information boards detailing the history of the bogs and their secrets. Some have short video presentations as well.

One of the more intriguing items is the lur, a serpentine brass instrument that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book and usually has been found buried in pairs. Modern lungs can propel sounds from the pipes, but no one can tell what sounds the ancients played -- or even whether the music was melodic, monotone or sets of aggressive single-note blasts. It's as though time has left them mute.

Experts believe the bodies and items were placed in the bogs as religious sacrifices.

"You don't accidentally lose an ax that keeps you alive," said Jaap Brakke of the Netherlands' Drents Museum, chief curator of the exhibition, who was in Los Angeles for the show's March opening. "They did it for religious reasons -- they are offerings."

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