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NOVA Highlights The Downside Of Being An Ancient King

by Rick Ellis
January 27, 2014 | I ❤️ PBS

Most people have at least heard of the famous La Brea Tar Pit, an ancient natural asphalt seepage located in Los Angeles that contains the remains of scores of ancient creatures. The pit has existed for tens of thousands of years and was often covered with leaves or dust, which allowed wildlife to simply walk into the pit and become trapped before they realized it. Archeologists have been retrieving everything from saber-tooth tiger bones to examples of rare plants for decades because the tar provided an ideal way to trap and preserve the specimens.

But tar pits aren't the only way nature can preserve remains. Ice can capture everything from skeletons to samples of air that are 1.5 million years old. And then there are the natural peat bogs, which are located everywhere from England to Minnesota. Many of the bogs were created 10-12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age and they consist of natural vegetation that is trapped in an area that is both moist and cool. The vegetation decays very slowly and anything trapped within the bog decays slowly as well. Many bogs also contain natural preservatives that leave the specimens in remarkable shape after hundreds or even thousands of years.

One of the largest concentrations of natural bogs is in Ireland and residents have pulled a fairly insane mix of items from the bogs over the years. Some finds have included 2,700-year-old wheel, tins of forgotten butter from hundreds of years ago and a lot of ancient weapons. And then there are the bodies. Some seem to be the remains of locals who were buried by loved ones in the bogs. But not every body's origin can be so easily explained.

A number of years ago an Irish worker harvesting peat spotted a corpse stained dark by the moss. As scientists begin to examine the body, they manage to date it to the Bronze Age, a period nearly 3,000 years ago. It's the latest example of a small number of bog corpses that have been recovered that seem to be the object of some unknown rituals. The bodies show evidence of violence, but not just the level of violence required to kill someone. These bodies have often been stabbed, hacked at and partially dismembered, as well as strangled. What would have sparked such an attack and why do these rare examples of Bronze age justice seem to all be connected somehow?

Nova takes a look at the mystery this week in Ghosts of Murdered Kings and the show treats the story like a traditional mystery story. Who were these people and what purpose was served by mutilating these bodies in such a violent fashion?

The show follows archaeologists and forensic experts as they examine the evidence and put together a working theory: that these bodies are the remains of ancient kings, who were sacrificed to the Gods to bring fertility to the land and the people. It's a shocking premise and one that illustrates that the retirement plan for ancient Irish kings was not an especially attractive one.

But what might be the most fascinating part of this story is that despite the wonderful theory and all the scientific evidence, much of this investigation just falls into the category of "best guess." We don't know all that much about these ancient people, so trying to accurately determine 3,000-year-old motives probably falls into the category of "mushy science." But the show does do a good job of presenting a scenario for these deaths that seems to fit the facts and one that is the best available theory until we finally nail down that time travel machine.

Ghosts Of Murdered Kings is an example of what Nova does best: take a complex subject and turn it into a compelling mystery tale as entertaining as anything written by Jules Verne.

Nova's Ghosts Of Murdered Kings airs on tpt2 on Wednesday, January 29th at 8:00 p.m.

Rick Ellis
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