- The Perfect Corpse
The soft tissues of the human body decay soon after burial, leaving only bones and teeth behind. Exceptions to this pattern—ancient bodies with well-preserved soft tissues—are a treasure beyond price for archaeologists. Preserved tissues form under conditions (extreme cold, extreme dryness, and especially extreme acidity) that inhibit the growth of the microorganisms that would normally consume it. The peat bogs of Northwest Europe, where sphagnum moss and water form an acidic bath that preserves human flesh in a process similar to the tanning of leather, are a particularly rich source of preserved bodies. Roughly two thousand “bog bodies” have been uncovered in Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and northern Germany. “The Perfect Corpse,” an episode of the PBS science-documentary series Nova, tells the story of two of the most recent: “Old Croghan Man” and “Clonycavan Man,” named for the sites, only twenty-five miles apart, where they were unearthed in 2003.
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The film follows a team of archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, pathologists, and museum conservators as they systematically investigate the two bodies. The analysis begins with anatomical observations that will be obvious even to viewers—the lower halves of both bodies are missing, as is Old Croghan Man’s head and one of Clonycavan Man’s arms—and moves on to increasingly specific and esoteric conclusions. Both bodies, the team concludes, belonged to Celts in their early-to-mid twenties who died somewhere in the 2nd century BC. Clonycavan Man stood a modest five-foot-two; Old Croghan Man was tall even by modern standards, at six-foot-six. Both men were murdered: Old Croghan Man was tortured with a knife and then stabbed multiple times; Clonycavan Man was struck three times in the face and head with a heavy, edged tool. Both, based on the appearance of their hands and fingernails, enjoyed lives relatively free from manual labor. According to the contents of their stomachs and the nitrogen levels in their fingernails, both ate relatively well. Old Croghan man’s diet was rich in grains and vegetables, suggesting that he was killed in the summer, when such foods were plentiful. Clonycavan Man’s meat-rich diet, on the other hand, suggests that he may have died during the winter. Clonycavan Man’s hair yields further clues to the world he inhabited. It is dressed with a preparation made from the sap of a pine tree found only in the south of France. The fact that he had access to it suggests an active trade, in luxury items at least, between Ireland and the Continent. [End Page 66]
The Nova episode intersperses scenes of the investigators at work in the laboratory, with reenacted snippets that illustrate the theories they are developing. The reenactments are brief and highly stylized, with self-consciously “artsy” lighting, tight close-ups, and rapid-fire editing that distinguish them visually from the staid documentary style of the laboratory scenes. The overall effect is similar to an episode of the television series CSI, a sensible and probably deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers. Fans of CSI and similar programs are unlikely to be startled by anything shown or described in The Perfect Corpse, but younger and more sensitive viewers may find it disturbing. The laboratory scenes include detailed close-ups of the bodies and the autopsies, and investigators discuss the wounds inflicted on them in explicit (though clinical) detail. The reenactments of torture, ritual murder, and bog burial are, like the shower scene in Psycho, horrific without being especially graphic.
The strength of The Perfect Corpse is its reliance on the subject matter itself—the two bog bodies and the investigators’ examination of them, which is inherently dramatic and needs little or no narrative embellishment. The film is careful about distinguishing between the observable data (the condition of the corpses), straightforward inferences from the data (cause of death, pre-mortem diet), and more speculative inferences shaped by our knowledge of other bog burials and Celtic culture (possible...