For the love of Bog
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For a people determined to communicate with the gods, the early Celts were surprisingly uncommunicative with the future. They did not put their beliefs into writing, recorded no genealogies, wrote no poetry and preferred that the secrets of their beliefs remain inaccessible to outsiders.
Precisely what they were thinking that day during the Iron Age 2,000 years ago, when they looped a noose around the neck of a 16-year-old girl, choked the life out of her, then dropped her in a bog near what is now Yde, the Netherlands, we cannot know. But it's reasonable to assume this wasn't a marketing strategy.
It was Romans and Greeks who gave these assorted tribes of sandy-haired warriors the name Celts. Now, inside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, they are reborn -- rekilled, actually -- as "The Mysterious Bog People."
The display is formidable. Ancient tools and leathery corpses are arrayed in display cases amid low light, with a musical background that suggests entrapped cattle. I took my youngest children, both of whose sandy hair and fair skin reasonably suggest some DNA research would entitle us to greet the visitors and accept their condolences.
"Look," my daughter said. "A dead body."
The husk of "Yde Girl" lay in a glass case next to a CAT scan machine. This woman was killed for any of a number of reasons: sacrifice to the gods, violation of some tribal law, possibly some physical flaw. Certainly she was not killed for future display.
Corpses have long been a morally loaded issue for public displays. The recent traveling exhibit, "Body Worlds," which uses skinned and preserved corpses obtained from medical schools and the remainder piles at medical examiners' offices, created a squall from ethicists queasy about using cadavers of our generation.
The Celts under glass at the Carnegie offer a different problem.
Above the desiccated young woman stretched out on a medical gurney, an exhibit shows how, in 1993, after careful medical study, scientists were able to construct a model of what Yde Girl might have looked like -- which is to say, like half the people I meet at family reunions.
Then there is this plaque:
Should We Be Reconstructing Faces?
The reconstruction of the faces of people found in the bogs can raise moral and ethical issues. Some believe that it shows a lack of respect for the dead. Scientists would argue, however, that it contributes to our knowledge of ancient people.
A dead teen, the noose of murder still about her neck, has been stretched out for display before a paying public -- and someone thinks the moral and ethical issue is whether it is right to use a computer model to tell us what she might have looked like alive? Such obtuseness should have warned visitors for what they would confront downstairs in the gift shop: Bog People souvenirs.
"Red Franz," one of the more popular corpses in the exhibition because of his flaring shock of red hair, can be found on Bog People coffee mugs and pint glasses. He is on Bog People T-shirts and a Bog People wool cap.
But the shop's prize offering is "The Mysterious Bog Coffee -- Premium blends of Central American coffee that 'bring you back to life' with your morning breakfast or whenever you feel like a pick-me-up."
It is available in Colombian ground or whole bean, chocolate almond and, the traditional favorite of the Druidic high priests, vanilla hazelnut.
The extent to which this business is tied to popular culture was evidence in the presence, alongside the Bog People mugs, of the "C.S.I Crime Scene Forensic Lab," kit that lets little coroners unlock the mysteries of pathology. If you like watching the dead on TV, come to Oakland and see the play.
Mark Benecke, a forensic researcher at the University of Cologne, did work on the Body Worlds shows. His combined academic heft and good humor provide the rare glimpse of moral clarity one seeks after watching a teenager's dried corpse in a museum.
"It's not something that ethics can decide. It's only something that can be culturally determined," Mr. Benecke told me. In some cultures, the human body is another item for examination. In others, it is fraught with mystical significance.
A century ago, it was not terribly odd for a photographer to snap a portrait of the deceased in his casket, often with the family gathered around. It seemed sensible. The corpse was still a member of the family and families made group decisions. In today's hyper-individualistic world, photographing a corpse is a violation of privacy because the person who must give the approval has already departed for Elysian Fields.
There is a line that must be crossed to make decisions about whether a corpse should or should not be an item of commerce, and the line is whether a culture believes the a dead human is suitable for viewing or somehow entitled to sacred status. After that, marketing is either forbidden or beside the point.
"The exhibition is crossing the line; not the coffee mugs," Mr. Benecke said.
The line was once drawn in blood and honor.
Pliny, writing of the Roman legions and their encounter with the Celts of Gall, observed that they took immense pride in nailing the severed heads of vanquished enemies to the walls of their homes. This was considered mere savagery.
Of course it was savage. It lacked a product tie-in.
First Published October 16, 2005 12:00 am