April 12, 2008
An exhibition at Manchester Museum will allow locals to meet the ancestor who's resided in the British Museum since his discovery in Cheshire 20 years ago
Two millennia after his violent death, and two decades after his startling rediscovery, Lindow Man is going home. Northwest England has doubtless produced many fine specimens of homo sapiens over the centuries. But few can have fascinated historians, archaeologists, even criminologists, as much as the poor chap whose skull (with left eyeball still intact) and assorted limbs, eerily well preserved by submergence in a bog, were uncovered in 1984 by two peat-cutters working in Lindow Moss, Cheshire.
For the past few years his freeze-dried remains have resided at the British Museum. But from next week they go on show for a year at the Manchester Museum, not far from where he must have lived. They will be part of an exhibition that recounts one of the most fascinating murder stories in British history. If, indeed, murder is what it was.
Lindow Man had been slain, it seems, three times: first by three blows to the head, then by being stabbed in the throat, and finally by a cord twisted round his neck. Who on earth would do that to a chap? Well, at the risk of offending my peaceloving Druid friends, I have to say that most of the circumstantial evidence points at their predecessors in 1st-century Cheshire. Forensic tests reveal that Lindow Man, clad only in a fox-fur arm band, had been painted green at the time of death, and that his last meal, of burnt grain, had included particles of mistletoe - a poisonous plant with strong Celtic associations. Carbon-dating also suggests that he had lived at around the time of Christ, or slightly later.
Was he a victim, or even a willing participant, in a “Wicker Man” style ceremony to mark Beltane? A May Day sacrifice to appease the gods of the Druids? That is the broad conclusion reached 20 years ago by two academics, Anne Ross and Don Robins, in their excellent study, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince.
But a more recent book, John Grigsby's Warriors of the Wasteland, offers an even more detailed interpretation. Grigsby speculates that Lindow Man met his death playing the Christ-like role of a sacrificial king in a mysterious Iron Age fertility cult, similar to the cults of Atys and Osiris among Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. The finding of more than a hundred similarly executed “bog bodies” across Europe does indeed suggest some widespread ritual practice.
What made the discovery of Lindow Man particularly macabre, however, was the bizarre sequence of events that preceded it. A few months earlier the same two peat-cutters had uncovered another skull in Lindow Moss. Early forensic reports suggested that it belonged to a middle-aged woman. Subsequent tests contradicted that: the skull was a man's, and close to 2,000 years old.
By then, however, a local man - convinced that the skull was his wife's - had confessed to her rape and dismemberment in the swirling mists of the same sinister location, 20 years earlier. His confession was so convincing that he was convicted of murder.
Who knows? Perhaps the old Celtic gods still have a lingering power to avenge evil deeds and haunt wrongdoers.
Review of 'Warriors of the Wasteland' from Amazon.com
Many years ago, W.Y. Evans-Wentz theorized that the ancient Celts may have held mystery rites, similar to those of the Greek Eleusis, in which they made a visionary journey to the lands of the dead. John Grigsby's fascinating book, to me, is the fulfillment of that theory. With archaeological and mythological evidence in abundance, Grigsby puts together a theory of what such mysteries might have been like.
He begins by wondering why the Celts practiced occasional human sacrifice. This is often a divisive issue. There are two general ideas about Celtic human sacrifice. One is that the Celtic lands were drenched in sacrificial blood and lit constantly by the fires of burning wicker cages full of unwilling victims. The other is that the Celts were peaceful tree-huggers who wouldn't hurt a fly. It's most likely that the truth is in the middle, and it's this middle road that Grigsby takes. His theory is that *in general* Druidic rituals involved either metaphorical deaths a la Eleusis, or animal sacrifice, but occasionally when severe problems cropped up, a human being consented to be a "bridge" between the living and the dead. To die, basically, so that his people could call his spirit back and ask it questions about what it had seen on the other side.
He gathers evidence from anywhere he can get it. The victims were sometimes painted green--so he goes to the myths and looks at the Green Knight story. They often had traces of the poisonous, hallucinogenic fungus ergot in their stomachs--so he makes comparisons to the Greek mysteries, where ergot in small doses may have facilitated the visions seen by the initiates. He looks at the stoneworks of the earlier peoples of Britain, since they may have been related to an earlier form of the cult. What emerges is a tantalizing speculation about Celtic/Druidic religion. I couldn't put it down--Grigsby has enough hard evidence to appeal to my left brain but also has the gift of interesting prose, to satisfy the right half. If Robert Graves had made coherent sense, he might have written this book.