Skull Talk: Bridges Among Death, Time, and Art

"The Bog" by Donald Cruttenden. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Bog” by Donald Cruttenden. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, when I’d had it up to here with working on my graduate thesis, I wandered off down the Internet’s rabbit trails and ended up reading about England’s bog bodies. Gross, I know. Apparently Northern Europe is littered with peat bogs which over thousands of years have accumulated bodies, some by accident, many put there on purpose. What people didn’t know when some of those first bodies went into the peat, was that the high acidity and low temperature and oxygen content served to preserve the bodies in unique ways, eating away bone but protecting organic material like hair, organs, and even ingested food. Though it’s rare to find a fully intact body, researchers have been able to learn a great deal about early mankind through chemical and genetic testing of these uniquely preserved remains.

To me, these stories aren’t macabre or disgusting despite photos of gaunt and leathered faces. I love the way researchers name the bog people and reconstruct their stories and culture. It’s joyous to realize a poor, Danish farmer is speaking to a lab of highly trained scientists, representing an entire culture, nearly four centuries after his death.

Last night I read about an Incan girl discovered thousands of miles from the northern bogs in the frigid heights of the Andes Mountains. Found by hikers 500 years after her death, she is frozen and mummified. Her perfectly preserved body led researchers to believe she was one of dozens of children sacrificed by ancient tribes for the protection of their villages. Other children’s remains, less well preserved, have been found nearby. Tribes raised these children richly, loved, and fed them well, and then took them to a high peak where the child’s spirit could watch over the village. They drugged them, posed them in sleep, and left them to the mercy of the elements and care of the gods. The photos are extraordinary; aside from the girl’s skin color she could be sleeping, her blood, digested food, organs, and braided hair are perfectly preserved. The Incans didn’t know their children would be so well preserved. It is happy accident that, centuries later, we are mapping their ancestral DNA through those children.

Later, working on my computer, I noticed one of the other tabs I had open to the website of a science fiction author. Suddenly my love of sci-fi crystallized my fascination with these bodies: they are wormholes.

These preserved bodies fold time, bringing the past into today as though nothing intervened. If we could heat up the Incan child and wake her, maybe she’d walk into our world nearly whole. It’s a fantastic thought that something could survive and communicate with us across centuries. Isn’t that the overall allure of archaeology for the historian?

On some subconscious level isn’t that perhaps a part of the allure of art? The best creative work has a chance to persevere, to speak across generations, to rise to the surface when the digital noise of our early 21st century world has faded into the bog of time. Don’t we all want a shot at creating one preserved remnant of our personal ideology that could represent a culture? What an archaic thought in this age, when every Tweet is archived by the Library of Congress, but creative inspiration never has paid attention to mankind’s progress.

Surely legacy isn’t the driving force in artistic endeavor, but as I think about our efforts at Poor Yorick I realize that is a potential hidden gift of our work. As writers, creators, and artisans, we are drawn to the historic* and cultural; we long to honor what endures. In doing so, perhaps we, ourselves, will linger.

*Even the bog bodies have served as inspiration, for a series of poems collected in Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s book North.


For More Information

The Tollund Man:

Bog Bodies:

Frozen Incan Mummies:


Karen Veazey
Associate Editor