The Latest

USU researcher investigates European mummies

A perfectly preserved skeletal body in a viewing case lies curled up into a fetal position. (Image credit: Blink Films)
By Christopher Austin

While most people envision the sands of Egypt when they think of mummies, the well-preserved dead can actually be found all over the world. Northern Europe has its own type of mummies in the form of “bog bodies” - corpses found buried in the marshy wetland regions of countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Germany. These unique remains offer some of the best insight into the way people of the past lived and died, and thanks to advancements in forensic technology, have become more interesting than ever.

The Smithsonian Channel recently aired an episode of its documentary series, Secrets, focusing on bog bodies and the mystery of why they exist. They contacted several experts in the field of forensics to lead them in their investigation, including Dr. Guinevere Granite, an assistant professor of Anatomy in the Department of Surgery (SUR) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). She has written several papers on her own investigations into bog bodies, particularly on her use of the portable x-ray fluorescence spectroscope (PXRFS). Using this handheld device, she is able to analyze the elemental makeup of bodies to discover previously unknown information about their life, cause of death, and mummification.

Dr. Guinevere Granite holds a gun-shaped portable x-ray fluorescence spectroscope over the mummified remains of a human in a laboratory in Germany.
Dr. Guinevere Granite uses a portable x-ray fluorescence
spectroscope on the “Roten Franz” bog body to gather
information on its elemental composition. This
information could help in determining factors about the
life of the bog bodies, how they died, and why they are
so well preserved. (Image credit: Guinevere Granite)
She first conducted her research on the elemental composition of human remains using the PXRFS back in the early 2000s as part of her master’s project.

“My professor could tell I was fascinated with this topic, so he asked if I had any interest [in examining the Northern European bog bodies],” Granite said. “I said ‘sure, but they’re celebrities over there.  There’s no chance a graduate student would be able to study them.’” But she was wrong.
Granite used the PXRFS to help identify the bodies’ composition. “Essentially, there’s a keyhole-sized measurement area that shoots x-rays through whatever substance you’re measuring,” Granite said. “Shooting x-rays at something for [a minimum of] 30 seconds will give you a good estimate for each of the elements you’re looking at.”   

Granite’s subsequent research came from her work with German and Dutch bog bodies. 

“Since forensics is making such leaps and bounds in regards to different types of techniques for figuring out more about forensic cases than in the past, bodies are getting revisited,” she said. “Ones found in the late 1800s and early 1900s were just opened up to see the insides, then closed back up and put away in a museum. Now researchers are trying a lot of techniques that are non-invasive. That’s why European investigators really picked up on the research I wanted to do: because I don’t need to take anything away from the body.”

Blink Films, the studio that filmed the documentary for the Smithsonian Channel, found out about Granite’s work through her LinkedIn page, and invited her to serve as one of their subject matter experts.

Dr. Granite stands in a hole in the bog uses the portable x-ray fluorescence spectroscope to analyze the elemental composition of the dirt. A measuring tape hangs from the top to show how deep in the hole her readings are being taken.
Dr. Granite takes readings from inside the hole where “Roten Franz” was originally discovered. (Image credit: Guinevere Granite)
They interviewed her about how bog bodies are created, her research with them, and her theories about why the bodies ended up in the bog.

The bog can be treacherous to walk through, she said, as the marshy ground can give way and cause people to sink and get stuck. While most of the discovered bodies in the bog are believed to be sacrifices from ancient times, many do not show signs of violence and may have fallen in by accident, or been buried there as an easy means of disposal. Livable land and its resources were valuable commodities in those areas, so burying bodies in marshes where they would easily sink into the ground was a reasonable alternative to burying them on fertile land or cremating them.

Granite currently teaches various anatomy courses for medical and graduate nursing students at USU, but she also hopes to collaborate with the Department of Pathology to start a forensic anthropology course. She believes that PXRFS could play a role in the future of military forensics, and hopes to apply it to future military research projects, including aiding in the identification of battlefield remains. 

Mummified skeleton laying in a wooden coffin
(Image credit: Guinevere Granite)