Exploration Mysteries: Bocksten Man

The Bocksten Man is one of the world’s oldest cold cases. In the 1930s, two children in Sweden came across this 14th-century murder victim. The body was surprisingly well-preserved, with a full head of strawberry blonde hair and intact clothing. However, we know nothing of the circumstances around this stranger’s death.

Troubled times

In the Middle Ages, Sweden experienced chaotic political and social change. First, society was shifting from pagan worship to Christianity. This caused religious tensions between the two groups.

Second, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden often fought for dominance over each other until the Kalmar Union in 1397 joined the Nordic countries together.

Third, tensions between the nobility and lower classes were at an all-time high. This led to frequent skirmishes and acts of violence.

On top of all that, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing 200 million people from 1347 to 1351. This devastating pandemic affected all areas of society. Farming suffered greatly, as many peasants died. Some who survived gain upward mobility thanks to wage increases. However, in Sweden, the nobility was reluctant to adjust the wages of their laborers. This led to unstable relations between rulers and ruled.

Like most northern European countries, Sweden abounds in peat bogs. Peatlands occupy over 15% of the land in Sweden. Peat was normally served as fuel, but it also had another unintentional purpose, preserving bodies.

A medieval crime scene

In 1936, two children named Thure and Gulli found human bones and clothing while gathering peat. When the police investigated further, they found more remains and artifacts. However, the forensic doctors of the time realized that this individual was not a recent victim but an ancient one. They determined that he had died approximately 650 to 750 years earlier, somewhere between 1290 and 1430.

When they put all the bones together, the victim turned out to be around 180cm tall. He was between 25-40 years old when he died. His full head of hair may have been originally blonde but it had turned red from the chemical processes within the bog.

At the time of his death, he was wearing leather shoes, foot wraps, a tunic, a pointy hood, and socks made of a type of wool called wadmal. These are some of the best-preserved ancient clothing in Europe. According to historians, they didn’t belong to a laborer but rather someone a little higher up. The items found with him included a sheath with a cross on it, a belt, two knives, and a bag.

Bocksten Man’s clothes. Photo: Hallands Kulturhistoriska Museum


Cause of death

Apart from injuries to the head and body, his vital organs, including the brain, remain spectacularly intact. He died when someone impaled him with a pair of wooden poles, which pierced his heart and back. He was also struck three times on the head with a hammer-like weapon, damaging his lower jaw, right side, and back of the head.

Thanks to the cold temperatures, low oxygen content in the water, and bog acid, the body barely decomposed. Bacteria can’t grow in temperatures below 4˚C. Most bog bodies found in Northern Europe date back much earlier to the Iron Age, when people were sacrificed in bogs to the gods of fertility and harvest. They are also well-preserved due to these anoxic conditions. But Bocksten Man is one of the few bog people from Christian times.

Few clues

It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to recognize that this man’s demise was no accident. But why was he murdered? The Hallands Kulturhistoriska Museum states, “Bocksten Man was not an average farmer, but rather someone who was in close contact with upper-class gentlemen. He might have been a servant, scribe, craftsman, or something similar on a large estate, at a castle, or in a town…”

The tumultuous relations between the upper and lower classes make it possible that this individual angered workers to the point where they killed him. Perhaps he represented a landowner and delivered bad news about wages.

A local legend suggests that he may have been recruiting soldiers. While an interesting theory, there is no evidence to back it up. It seems more like a story concocted by a handful of locals.

Facial reconstruction of the Bocksten Man. Photo: Hallands Kulturhistoriska Museum


Another claim is that he was an official of the Catholic Church named Simon Gudmundi and that he died in 1491. This, however, places his death much later than the carbon dating of his clothing would suggest. He was also not dressed as grandly as a church official. Though not a laborer, he likely came from a more humble background.

The elusive why?

We will likely never know who he was, what he did, or why he was murdered. The Bocksten Man’s body does not give us enough details about his personal life, his profession, or why someone would want him dead. However, one thing is certain:  Bocksten Man suffered from the circumstances of his time, an era of plague and strife. Whether he died from an angry mob or a villager he had offended, he did not deserve such a brutal end.

However, his murder immortalized him, in a way. His body has provided us with a wealth of information about life in the Middle Ages in Sweden. He is now on display at the Count Museum of Halland.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.