I drove here on a damp March day with Ole Nielsen, director of the Silkeborg Museum. We tramped out to a desolate stretch of bog, trying to keep to the clumps of ocher-colored grass and avoid the clingy muck between them. A wooden post was planted to mark the spot where two brothers, Viggo and Emil Hojgaard, along with Viggo’s wife, Grethe, all from the nearby village of Tollund, struck the body of an adult man while they cut peat with their spades on May 6, 1950. The dead man wore a belt and an odd cap made of skin, but nothing else. Oh yes, there was also a plaited leather thong wrapped tightly around his neck. This is the thing that killed him. His skin was tanned a deep chestnut, and his body appeared rubbery and deflated. Otherwise, Tollund Man, as he would be called, looked pretty much like you and me, which is astonishing considering he lived some 2,300 years ago.
The first time I saw him in his glass case at the Silkeborg Museum, a kind of embarrassed hush came over me, as if I had intruded on a sacred mystery. Apparently, this happens frequently. “Most people get very silent,” says Nielsen. “Some people faint, but that’s rare.”
What really gets you is his lovely face with its closed eyes and lightly stubbled chin. It is disconcertingly peaceful for someone who died so violently. You’d swear he’s smiling, as if he’s been dreaming sweetly for all those centuries. “It’s like he could wake up at any moment and say, ‘Oh, where was I?’” says Nielsen, who has clearly fallen under Tollund Man’s spell himself. “Looking at his face, you feel you could take a trip back 2,300 years to meet him. I would like to put a USB plug into his well-preserved brain and download everything that’s on it, but that’s impossible. He’s reluctant to answer.”
Reluctant perhaps, but not altogether unwilling. Archaeologists have been asking the same questions since the Hojgaards first troubled Tollund Man’s long sleep: Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you live? Who murdered you and why? But the way the researchers ask the questions, using new forensic techniques like dual-energy CT scanners and strontium tests, is getting more sophisticated all the time. There’s new hope that, sometime soon, he may start to speak.
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