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FALL 2007

Vol. 08, No. 1


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Hard Evidence

Slowly, a machine that looks like a big white doughnut comes to life, and begins to drone, its continuous mechanical hum breaking the dead silence in the room. The next sounds come from the camera inside. Click. Click. Click. Picture after picture, as a body inches through the imaging machine. A woman observing the test watches for clues. Others have voiced theories, but she wants only hard evidence.

She spends time examining the images. There are five vertebrae in the lower back, each about the thickness of a fingernail. She reviews images of the pelvis, upper leg bones. And then the unexpected. "There's the cranium and the brain," her voice rising in excitement.

"There's a perfectly intact little brain in there that's shrunken and flat, but it's there."

Many had dismissed the man as a bag of skin. "But nobody bothered to find out," she says. "I'm not the kind of person who deals well with not knowing." She studies the man further. He's known simply as Damendorf Man, a 2,000-year-old body found in northern Germany. She knows he has a story to tell.

The search for answers to questions raised from such long-dead bodies drives Heather Gill-Robinson, a physical anthropologist at North Dakota State University. Her patients don't speak, but they leave clues. Buried with these bodies -- interesting and repulsive, mysterious and romantic -- are clues that others might miss. The eerily preserved hair of dark orange, leathery skin and other treasures like fully preserved capes, shoes, pottery -- even preserved whorls on fingertips capable of producing fingerprints. All of it provides a portal to the past.

Shrouded in folklore, it is often portrayed as a time of toil, misery and mystery. The Iron Age spans approximately 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., but exact dates and context depend on the geographic location. Celtic religion and its priests, the druids, held sway in northern Europe. Gods and goddesses needed to be made happy with gifts such as sacrifices. Bad harvest? Someone must pay. Outgoing king? Sacrificed as the new one took his place. It's a culture that told stories and did not write them down; that cremated most bodies instead of burying them.

Some clues in the bodies that were buried suggest an extremely violent culture. "He had been decapitated," says Gill-Robinson about another of the six bodies and one skeleton that she studies. "We know that with certainty. ... He had two stab wounds to the heart. We have the heart. I can see the cut marks. There are stab wounds through the skin of the chest. He had been mutilated."

The why remains elusive. Gill-Robinson's intense curiosity about how he died is coupled with intrigue about how the evidence of his painful demise could last for thousands of years. Egyptians focused on dehydration to deprive bacteria from attacking a body and other methods to mummify treasures. But the people of the Iron Age in northern Europe had no such practices. What they had is unique geography. A squishy combination of black water, lichen, moss, and other substances make a worthy chemistry cauldron. Natural embalming occurs in peat bogs -- the same bogs believed to be home to gods and outcast spirits. The water-logged bogs create a natural preservative. The lack of oxygen, antimicrobial action and the sphagnum conspire to make perfectly preserved corpses. The bodies tossed into the bogs thousands of years ago are essentially pickled. Although science can explain some of the unique properties, others remain a mystery. All bog bodies have some similar characteristics from their time in their cold, watery graves. "Skin changes to a tougher, more tanned one," says Gill-Robinson. The look is similar to what is achieved through, say, formaldehyde.

Still more mysterious is how the bodies got there. "The common theory is that they're sacrifice victims. That is one possibility. There are others. They may be simple burials. They may be people who were disposed of for criminal reasons," says Gill-Robinson. A Danish researcher suggests a more practical reason. Instead of wasting good farmland on cemeteries, bodies were placed in bogs. "I'm not a big believer in 'They're all ritual,' " says Gill-Robinson. "I'm really not a big believer of that so I try to talk about the fact that there are other theories."

Her quest for fact over fiction led her to northern Germany and a body known as Windeby Girl, found in 1952. The lore surrounding the body involves romance and passion. She caused much excitement when she turned up blindfolded with her head shaved. "These stories of an adulterous 12-year-old girl. They called her the marriage breaker, essentially a home wrecker," Gill-Robinson says. A body found nearby, thought to be her lover, added to the mystique.

But Gill-Robinson saw something else. Her research is quoted in the September 2007 issue of National Geographic: "... the theory unraveled after Heather Gill-Robinson of North Dakota State University took a close look at the body ... Windeby Girl was likely a young man." He may have lost his hair when archaeologists' trowels dug up the body. Physical examination of the mummy showed that growth interruptions in the bones of the specimen indicated a sick young man who may have died from natural causes. And the speculation about an affair ended when radiocarbon dating placed the two bog bodies about 300 years apart.

"Windeby Girl was very much a northern German icon, so to take this cultural figure and say that something you've built these ideas around for the last 50 years is a very scary thing. This is part of their heritage. I was respectful," says Gill-Robinson. "We're going back to do some more work with him."

While popular images of archaeologists and forensic experts revolve around the whip-carrying movie character Indiana Jones, or lab experts who solve nicely-packaged evidence in a television hour, the reality is much less glamorous. It requires patience. It requires belief in science rather than in fabricated stories. And as it turns out, technology to help the living provides keys to unlocking the secrets of the dead. It has changed research for Gill-Robinson and her colleagues. Medical imaging technology and software allow these sleuths of ancient truths to find clues previously missed. "The single biggest innovation for us is the rise of the CT scan and the three-dimensional imaging and reconstruction," says Gill-Robinson. "The fact that we now have permanent 3-D records of all the bodies that we scan -- we can go back and analyze them over and over again. And we can essentially do virtual autopsies through the imaging without having to touch the body."

Powerful software designed for medical imaging means the bodies can be analyzed in minute detail. "The image analysis takes forever. It takes a long time to edit out soft tissue and reconstruct it," says Gill-Robinson. NDSU students assist with the painstaking work. James Schanandore, majoring in zoology and anthropology, finds it valuable experience. "It may take a lot of work, but when you find something significant or important, the work is well worth it." He is examining the bog body images to determine their age, gender and paleopathologies -- looking for fractures or diseases that may affect the bones. Files are eventually sent to a colleague in Manitoba who prints out a 3-D plaster model for further study.

Trace element analysis and DNA analysis coax additional clues from the peat bog mummies. Gill-Robinson can, for example, tell what mummies may have had for their last meals, or possibly their occupations. In the case of the flattened Damendorf Man, he may have been a silver gilder.

But Gill-Robinson has concerns that such evidence is rapidly disappearing, carrying with it the opportunity to understand ancient civilizations. There are only about 40 known bog mummies left in the world. They are scattered throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands. "These are very precious and they don't survive particularly well forever," she says. Some specimens were placed in museums but not curated properly. "Others were destroyed in World War II. Some may be stored in medical schools. Others were sampled to death."

Ironically, it was an article titled "This Little Piggy Went to Cumbria; This Little Piggy Went to Wales," that ultimately led Gill-Robinson to her study of Windeby Girl, now known as Windeby Child. While working on her master's degree in York, England, she buried 12 stillborn piglets or those already killed in barn accidents in peat bogs in England and Scotland to test how the bogs naturally preserved the bodies. She recorded depths and pH levels of the bogs for up to two years. The different bog environments created varying levels of preservation. One excavated piglet exploded on contact. Others shrunk considerably but their organs remained intact. Quoted in the New York Times, Gill-Robinson pointed out the potential value of the research for law enforcement. "If we know what causes decay and allows bodies to stay preserved, we will be able to predict with more accuracy one's time of death."

For Gill-Robinson, the experimental archaeology in the piglet project opened doors. "I built up a good enough reputation in the field that they allowed me and trusted me enough to work with the bodies." She asked a museum in Schleswig, Germany, if she could review X-rays of bog bodies in their collection. "Would you like to work with them?" they asked. "Sure. Absolutely. Like I'm going to say no!"

A body named Tollund Man, found with a leather noose around his neck, first sparked her curiosity. "I started as a primary school teacher and realized that was not a great career necessarily for me. Somewhere along the way, someone showed me the body of Tollund Man and I said, 'Well, how does that work?' And they couldn't tell me. So that meant I had to go and find out. And I've been working on that ever since."

Her globetrotting started much earlier. With her father in the Canadian military, Gill-Robinson spent part of her childhood in Germany. Later, as part of her teacher training, she taught in Denmark, amid kids from 15 different countries. She lived in the United Kingdom while completing her master's degree. Then there was the job for a bookie (a legal bookmaker) in Leicester, England. She taught in Her Majesty's Prison in Leicester and completed post-graduate work in forensic archaeology at Bournemouth University on the southern coast of England. Back in Canada, for a time she worked as a forensic support technician for the Police Department in Belleville, Ontario.

She currently is collaborating with colleagues on what may well be the largest exhibition of human and animal mummies in the world at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, an exhibit scheduled to run until March 2008. She notes the interesting cultural differences that occur with such exhibits in Europe and North America. She's published articles on how bodies were displayed for an exhibit in Germany and what changes were made when the exhibit came to Canada. "They did public survey work on whether people thought it would be appropriate or revolting," she recalls. "They angled display cases in a way so that you had to physically make an effort to see them."

Despite the slightly morbid fascination some might have about mummies, Gill-Robinson sees relevance in studying the past through these ancient bodies. She finds value in using science to unravel the mysteries of the Iron Age. It gives glimpses of cultures and heritage, akin to her own Danish ancestry. "Every day I understand that I am privileged to work with these bodies and these individuals and understand who they are."

-- C.Renner

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.