Spotlight On … the Tollund Man.

Spotlight On … the Tollund Man.

Written by Victoria Green.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.

Think about leather for a moment. See what pops into your head. Handbags? Belts? Suitcases? Gloves? I doubt you thought about human leather. Tanned human skin, that is. This kind of leather is morbidly fascinating, but also not (always) half as sinister as it sounds.

Most people are probably familiar with the Tollund Man, or at least with his face. The Tollund Man is a naturally tanned corpse from the Scandinavian pre-Roman Iron Age (c.4th Century BC) that was found in 1950 in Jutland, Denmark. The body was accidentally mummified thanks to the anaerobic (or oxygen-free) conditions in the peat bog that became his final resting place. So well preserved was the body that it was initially believed to be that of a recent murder victim. Curled into a foetal position, the Tollund Man looks as though he is merely sleeping, time stood still, offering us a window into an age long passed. Bogs historically have connotations of worship, and it was thought likely that this man was killed and buried as part of a ritual sacrifice.

Now for the CSI bit. When he was excavated in 1950, the Tollund Man went to hospital for an autopsy. His head was undamaged, and his heart, lungs and liver well preserved. The furrows on his neck and under his chin, along with a distended tongue, indicated death by hanging rather than strangulation. The body was opened up, and his intestines removed. Today these are missing, but the contents of his stomach, what would have been his last meal, are preserved (a porridge made from grains and seeds, in case you were wondering).

If you were to go to the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark now, the body on display – except for the head – is actually a replica. The Tollund Man was unusual in the fact that his body was not completely preserved like other ‘bog bodies’ of the time. Instead, the Tollund Man was dismembered; the head, torso, feet, and a single thumb were preserved in wax while the rest was allowed to dry out and shrink. This fact makes it even more exciting that the National Leather Collection possess a small piece of skin from the belly of the ‘original’ Tollund Man, taken before the body was allowed to decompose.

Our piece of the Tollund Man is tiny, perhaps a product of experimental conservation. So how can we really know that we have a piece of genuine Iron Age bog body? I hear you ask. When you look at all the evidence, it seems to stack up in our favour. Our fragment of skin looks like the torso held at the Silkeborg museum in terms of colouration and condition. When examined closely, the inside of the skin shows clearly visible muscle fibres which appear almost like hairs. The outside of the skin features leaves of the Sphagnum moss that the Tollund Man was found in, which appear similar in shape to broad bamboo leaves. This mimics what can also be seen on the torso. Another clue is the grains of sand embedded into the skin, something which also appears on other parts of the body.

I was quick to question how on earth a piece of the Tollund Man ended up in our museum. As far as I knew, the body had been left to decompose after the initial preservation efforts. When I reached out to the Museum of Silkeborg, the director was certainly surprised to find out that we had part of the body in our collection. Nonetheless, as anyone who has read one of my blogs before will know, I love a good mystery. So I set my mind to finding out how this sample of pre-Iron Age human leather came to the hands of our founder, John Waterer.

The story is as follows. Our piece of the Tollund Man was presented to the National Leather Collection by Dr. Knud Thorvildsen via Dr. Kenneth P. Oakley. Dr. Thorvildsen was a conservator who ran the Tollund Man excavation in 1950, and had the task of uncovering the body within its peat tomb. Dr. Oakley is also an interesting character. He worked at the British Museum, publishing about human remains, developing new methods of bone dating and was responsible for uncovering the Piltdown Man hoax. On the 2nd March 1954, Dr. Oakley sent a letter to Waterer which enclosed a note and a piece of naturally tanned human leather, identified as part of the Tollund Man. These credentials certainly seem to lend a level of legitimacy to the piece.

It also wasn’t unheard of for pieces of the Tollund Man to have been given to other museums and institutions for research. When Christian Fischer took over the care of the Tollund Man he decided to attempt to piece the original body back together. Fischer began to search for the missing parts, only to find that these had been scattered to different institutions and were in varying conditions of preservation. Given this, it was decided to create a replica body rather than a Frankenstein-like version of now mismatched pieces.

So perhaps it is a little morbid to be so fascinated by this piece of human leather, but I believe that its true purpose in our collection goes beyond a quick thrill. This fragment of the Tollund Man demonstrates the natural tanning action of peat bogs, and shows just how long leather can endure for. The Tollund Man is now over 2,300 years old, and the head is still preserved just as it was in the moment of death. It opens your eyes to the fact that leather isn’t just about fashion, shoes or industry. Leather can be human too, organic and natural. The National Leather Collection exists to tell the story of leather, and I think that the founders would have considered this piece and its attached history a tale worth telling.

The Tollund Man is just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.