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Osterby Man Still Has a Great Hairdo Nearly 2,000 Years On!

Since at least the 18th century AD, there have been discoveries in northwestern continental Europe and Britain of “bog bodies” – human remains which have been preserved in the anoxic environment of bogs. These specimens are very well-preserved, with hair, skin, and clothing being retained in the process. Bog bodies offer a unique view into the society of Iron Age Germany and Scandinavia. A particularly interesting example is the Osterby Man, or the Osterby Head, which was unearthed in 1948 in Osterby, Germany, and dates to 70 – 220 AD. Only the skull remains, but the hair is very well-preserved having been tied into a Suebian knot, a type of hair style reported to be prevalent among ancient Germanic tribes in the area. It is unclear whether the Osterby Man was executed or sacrificed. We may never know the answer to this question, but there are some clues which shed light on it.

The Suebian Knot on the Bog Body Shows the Osterby Man was No Slave

The Osterby Man appears to have suffered a rather violent death. His left temple was shattered, and fragments were imbedded in his brain. His face, however, is well-preserved, as well as his hairstyle, which took the form of a Suebian knot.

The Roman historian Tacitus states that the Suebian knot was a hairstyle common among the Suebi tribe in Germany. He reports that it was used to make the man look taller and more imposing on the battle field. It was also a sign of status and distinguished slave from free man. Suebian knots, depicted in Greco-Roman art and found on other bog bodies, show that they could be worn on the side of the head – as in the case of the Osterby Man, but also in other places such as the back of the head – as is the case for the Datgen man. The most elaborate Suebian knots were worn by chieftains.

Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum.

Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The Suebian knot was also worn by young men from other tribes who wanted to imitate the hairstyle, possibly because it made them look both taller and more menacing on the battlefield as well as more masculine. According to Tacitus, in other Germanic tribes, this was only a common practice among young men. Among the Seubi, however, even old men wore the knot.

Osteological analysis of the Osterby Man shows that he was most likely about 50-60 years of age when he died. This indicates that he was probably Suebi and was a free man, not a slave. He may have been of high standing as well, since the Suebian knot was also a symbol of status. However, since we do not know how much more elaborate the Suebian knots of chieftains and nobles were than lower level warriors, we cannot be certain of his social status – other than that he was not a slave.

Why Are These Bodies Found in Bogs?

One major question regarding the bog bodies is how they ended up in the bogs. Most bog bodies show evidence of suffering violent deaths. It is possible that these were cases of random killings where they were either murdered in the bog, or had their bodies deposited in the bog so that they would not be discovered. The pattern is, however, regular and common enough that it is more likely that they were either executed or sacrificed.

Like many other bog bodies, it may not be possible to tell whether the Osterby Man was executed as a criminal or sacrificed, however, there is some data which can be used to infer one or the other. For example, the Osterby Man appears to have been about middle-aged, suggesting that he had lived long enough to have gained a position of honor and respect in his culture. This suggests that he died honorably, making it plausible that he was sacrificed. However, it is not inconceivable that a man who was respected in his society may have done something to lose this respect and have been executed.