It’s a Dead Man’s Party: The Lindow Man and the Gebelein Man

“Do you know where the Lindow Man is?” the woman asked the British Museum staff member hesitantly. I was a few steps away and stopped with a squeak of boot rubber on polished stone tile when I heard the question. I totally understood her hesitancy. See, she’d just asked to see a dead body.

Here was the answer from the staff member. Imagine it in a thick British accent (I’ll write it as dropping the H’s, but there’s more to it than that): “I believe ’e’s on ’oliday. Feeling a bit under the weather.” For a second, my heart dropped. It wouldn’t be the first time an artifact I came to see was off gallivanting in a traveling exhibition or pulled from display to undergo a years-long preservation in some off-limits back room of the museum.

But then the man winked and said, “Follow me.” The woman did, and so did I, albeit ten steps back. I have less courage than her when it comes to inquiring about dead guys. Even if he was the number one reason I was at the museum. Possibly number two. The museum also has a crystal skull.

Turns out, asking was probably the right thing to do as said dead body was on display in a corner, facing away from the rest of the room. I could have walked right by it.

And then I would have missed one of those most famous bog bodies in the world.

Bog bodies, besides being an exquisite exercise in alliteration and vivid evocation, are ancient corpses dredged from peat bogs, mostly in northern Europe. The unique combination of chemical elements, environmental structure, and flora that makes up these bogs can preserve bodies for thousands of years in fine detail, down to hair and facial features and clothing.

Bog bodies are basically naturally occurring mummies of the sort that for some reason Hollywood hasn’t made 500 horror movies about (Bog Body 7: For Peat's Sake, starring Eric Roberts and Elisabeth Shue).

The Lindow Man himself was found in Lindow Moss in Cheshire, not too far from Liverpool and Manchester. That was back in the halcyon days of 1984. A peat company was divvying up the bog and its cutters came across him.

Now, 33 years later and after some freeze-drying, he’s in a waist-high glass case in the corner of one of the most auspicious museums in the world, resting on a bed of stony mulch.

My first impression of the Lindow Man was that I was looking at a deflated person. A puppet prop discarded after a movie production. As set of sloughable skin that missed the laundry basket by a few feet. That’s because, as with most bog bodies, elements in the bog had assimilated his calcium. It makes your body eternal, but requires your bones in exchange. Not a bad deal.

He was only complete from the waist up, plus a detached leg from the knee down. He was a yellowish-brown, like he’d been rinsed in coffee. But his face was almost clear enough to recognize in a crowd. You could see the curve of his ear and the beard on his chin, the interplay of cheek and forehead and nose. In fact, there’s enough left of him for scientists to guess a good amount about him.

The Lindow Man died in his mid-20s, was about 5’7”, and is naked except for a fox-fur armband and a loop of animal sinew around his neck. Because of his young age, seeming health, and the wounds on his head and neck, experts hypothesize that he was murdered. So possibly the peat bog was a place to dispose of the body.

Not a bad bit of forensics for someone who died 2,000 years ago.

Fun fact: There is also a Lindow Woman. Only her head was preserved, but she was found the year before her male counterpart. She helped solve a modern-day murder. The head was so well preserved that police thought it was the remains of a woman who had gone missing in the 1960s. They used it as evidence to confront her husband, who then confessed. When later it was learned the true nature of the head, the powers that judge decided the confession was strong enough to stand on its own. The world is a strange place.

I initially thought the Lindow Man might be displayed as he was to shield people of more delicate sensibilities and/or stronger beliefs about the display of dead bodies in museums. But then I met the Gebelein Man, another naturally occurring mummy, who was more brazenly displayed in the Egyptian wing.

That’s right. There, surrounded by the purposefully and intricately preserved bodies of one of the more death-obsessed cultures the planet has spawned, was an accidental mummy. Instead of getting an ornate sarcophagus, he’s naked and contorted and displayed in a cube of glass on the floor.

The Gebelein Man was a red-haired youth who died in his late teens or early twenties 5,500 years ago. He was discovered in 1896 and thought to have lived near the Nile a little south of Thebes. His mail has been forwarded to the British Museum since 1901.

And while this mummy was preserved by the hot sands of the African desert as opposed to the mushy moss of the European wetlands, the Lindow Man and the Gebelein Man have something in common besides being accidental artifacts: The Gebelein Man was also a murder victim.

According to experts, one of his ribs and his shoulder is damaged in such a way as to suggest a stab wound from the back. They go even further to suggest that since they can find no defensive wounds, it was possibly a surprise attack. The evidence was then buried in the sand, inadvertently providing the opportunity for us to conjecture about thousands of years later as we stare down into his environmentally-controlled glass case at his desiccated form.

Whether it’s the Lindow Man surreptitiously displayed or the Gebelein man unabashedly so, I get the same feeling from each of them as I get every time I see a dead body in a museum: I hope that thousands of years in the future, my fate is similar. You know, minus the murder part.