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The Discovery of Lindow Man: An Ancient Bog Body Unearthed in England

In the 1980s workers in an English peat bog started unearthing bodies, the apparent victims of violence.

At the end of the most recent ice age, around 11,000 years ago, melting ice formed a bog in North West England. Lindow Moss, as the bog came to be known, stretched for 1,500 acres across what is now the county of Cheshire, encompassing a mosaic of habitats: woodland, scrub, and mossland.

Today the picturesque bog lies on the outskirts of Wilmslow, a verdant town that once offered Victorian Manchester’s wealthy industrialists an escape from the city’s smoky haze. For the less well off, Lindow Moss had long offered a more spartan home. In the 15th and 16th centuries landless poor eked out a precarious living here on society’s margins, cutting and drying peat from the bog to sell as fuel for stoves and soil for crops. The industry continued well into the 20th century, operating much as it always had. Wor+kers would cut peat into blocks by hand and lay them in stacked rows to dry in the wan English sun, turning them repeatedly over a two-year period before they were ready for use.

But by the 1980s the Industrial Revolution had reached even this bucolic operation, and the whole process had been mechanized. Now peat is scooped up by mechanical diggers and placed in loose stacks, where it is left to dry. Afterward it is sent to a processing mill, checked for chunks of bark and branches large enough to jam the machinery, ground up into a fine compost, and then sold to mushroom growers around the country.

On May 13, 1983, Andy Mould and Stephen Dooley were standing by the mill’s conveyor, watching for anything that might foul the operations, when they spotted a lump that reminded Mould of a small, black leather soccer ball. “Perhaps,” they joked, “this is a dinosaur egg.” They pulled it off the belt and took it to Ken Harewood, manager of the peat works. Curious as to what the object might be, they washed it. But this was no ball. This was evidently, gruesomely, a human skull—missing its jaw but still possessing skin, some hair, and one baleful eyeball that stared at them.

The police were quick to respond to the grisly find. And in the best tradition of police work, they were quick to identify their suspect. For some time the constabulary had believed that a local man, Peter Reyn-Bardt, had murdered his wife. Problem was they didn’t have a body. They had fruitlessly dug over Reyn-Bardt’s garden, just 300 yards from the Lindow Moss. So when forensics reported the head was from a woman between 30 and 50 years old, the police were convinced.

Reyn-Bardt wasn’t hard to find. He had only recently been released from jail, having served time for a series of sex crimes against children. Confronted with news of the discovery in the bog, he quickly confessed. “It has been so long, I thought I would never be found out,” Reyn-Bardt told police under questioning.

In 1959 Reyn-Bardt, an airline employee, had married Malika Maria de Fernandez, a portrait artist who loved to travel. Their romance had been notable for its brevity—just hours from first meeting to proposal and then only four days until their wedding. Their union was similarly brief, lasting just a few months. Fernandez returned to traveling using her new husband’s discounted airfare while Reyn-Bardt settled into a cottage with a lover, a man.

Sometime in 1960 or 1961 Fernandez visited Reyn-Bardt at his cottage and demanded money, threatening to expose his sexuality if he didn’t pay. (Homosexuality remained a criminal act in England until 1967; the now infamous persecution and subsequent suicide of Alan Turing in the early 1950s would have been just one example of the risks facing gay men of that era.) Reyn-Bardt had no money to offer her, and the two fought.

“Something just boiled over inside me,” he stated in his confession. Later, while on trial, newspapers reported that he grabbed her shoulders and did not realize she was dead until he stopped shaking her. “I was terrified and could not think clearly. The only thing that came to mind was to hide her,” he told the court. He used an axe to dismember her remains, then tried to burn them. When that failed, he scattered them in the bog.

To the policeman in charge, Detective Inspector George Abbott, it seemed an open-and-shut case. The forensics showed a woman of the right age, and Reyn-Bardt had made a clear confession. But one issue nagged at Abbott: despite careful searching, the rest of Fernandez’s remains proved frustratingly elusive. Not satisfied, Abbott sent the head to Oxford University for further study.

The trial was conducted at the Chester Crown Court in December 1983. Reyn-Bardt sought to have his charge downgraded from murder to manslaughter. But then in a spectacular turnabout a professor from Oxford University’s archaeology department testified that the head could not possibly belong to Fernandez. Radiocarbon dating showed the remains were around 17 centuries old, dating all the way back to Roman Britain.

Reyn-Bardt tried to recant his confession but was convicted of murder by a jury count of 11 to 1. He spent the rest of his life in prison.

This sordid tale might have slipped away as just another gruesome historical anecdote. But a year later Andy Mould made a second morbid discovery in the peat. On August 1, 1984, standing again at the mill’s conveyor, Mould removed a piece of what he thought was bog wood. “We gave it a little clean, then we saw the toenails,” Mould said in a 2008 interview with the Manchester Museum.