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Exhibition Looks at 'Mysterious Bog People'

A museum in Los Angeles is bringing to life the people who lived in northern Europe thousands of years ago. Well-preserved bodies and artifacts from fog-shrouded bogs offer a glimpse of the distant past.

Throughout northwestern Europe, in what is today Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Britain, are swampy landscapes known as bogs. In the summer and fall, when the air temperature is lower than the ground temperature, an eerie mist hangs over the landscape. Sylvie Morel of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa says these are scary places.

"They're wet, they're dark, they're misty," said Sylvie Morel. "They're not a place that you would just go to live or to have a good time. They were very much a place where people went and deposited artifacts, and the ultimate sacrifice of human bodies."

The Canadian museum is one of four institutions that is sponsoring this travelling exhibition, which is now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Archeologist Scott Van Keuren says 400 artifacts, many remarkably preserved, offer a glimpse into the lives of little-understood people. Some items date back 12,000 years, and include Stone Age axes, Bronze Age swords and spearheads, amber necklaces, household pottery, textiles and leather shoes. A wooden wheel carved from a single piece of oak is nearly 5,000 years old, one of the oldest known in Europe. He says some, including a 4,000-year-old flint knife with a leather shaft and strap, look almost new.

"And really the highlight of the show are the bog bodies, these wonderfully preserved human remains that were placed into the bog as sacrifices," said Scott Van Keuren. "They're not mummies, per se. The people were placed in the bog on purpose, and it was the natural qualities of the bog that preserved them so well for us to learn from."

Six bog mummies are included in the exhibit. The best preserved is a 16-year-old female known as "Yde Girl", named after the place where she was found in the Netherlands. She lived 2,000 years ago, and around her neck is the woolen cord with which she was strangled.

Scholars can only speculate about the life and rituals of the bog people. They left no writings, and much about them remains shrouded in mystery, like the bogs where the bodies and artifacts were found. Historians believe they practiced human sacrifice for religious reasons, and one body on display shows signs of a violent death from knife wounds to the belly.

The bodies and artifacts reflect various cultures from different time periods. Jaap Brakke of the Drents Museum in the Netherlands says some bog people were hunter-gatherers, and others were simple farmers who led quiet lives.

"Imagine little farming villages, five, six, or seven farms, little hamlets, and people producing for their own needs and for trade," said Jaap Brakke. "Easy going. But bogs were never far."

New forensic techniques show what some bog people may have looked like. Yde Girl emerges as a fragile teenager with sandy, flowing hair and delicate features. Jaap Brakke says the exhibit has been seen by thousands of museum-goers in Europe and at another US venue, in Philadelphia. He says all of them, including Americans, are drawn to the subject.

"I think we are giving our audiences, also here in LA, a window to the past, showing them a story, the story of the farmers and the hunter-gatherers in northwestern Europe and their historym," he said. "And a lot of Americans can trace their family tree, their family roots back into northwestern Europe. And so for a lot of Americans, it's their story as well.

The Mysterious Bog People will be on display at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles through September 10.