The Tollund Man Lived at the Same Time as Socrates

Written by Camilla Jessen

May.08 - 2024 3:10 PM CET

Photo: Biographics on YouTube
Photo: Biographics on YouTube
Denmark's best-preserved bog body, the Tollund Man, was killed around the same time as the Greek philosopher Socrates faced his notorious death sentence.

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The Tollund Man, Denmark’s most famous bog body, has been precisely dated for the first time, revealing that he lived and died around the same period as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

This new dating, derived from carbon-14 analyses, places the Tollund Man's death between 405 and 384 BC, which closely aligns with Socrates' execution in Athens in 399 BC.

The new findings, conducted by researchers from Aarhus University, mark a significant advancement in archaeological dating, providing a remarkably precise window into the past.

Scientific Breakthrough in Historical Dating

Until this point, the estimated time of the Tollund Man's death was broadly set between 400 and 200 BC. The latest research narrows this down, enhancing our understanding of the context in which he lived.

Nina Helt Nielsen, research director at the Museum Silkeborg where the Tollund Man is housed, expressed excitement over this historical precision:

"It is completely wild and exceptional that we can now place him so precisely in history. It is very unusual to be able to date prehistoric finds with such great accuracy," she told

This clarity allows historians to more directly link the Tollund Man to concurrent historical events, such as the life of Socrates.

The accurate dating was achieved by performing detailed carbon-14 analyses on his bones. Carbon-14, a radioactive substance, decays over time and its measurement is a standard method for dating ancient organic materials.

"It is very unusual that one can date prehistoric bones with such great precision. We thought: That can't be right. So we tested it several times and checked for errors, but no matter how many times we calculated it, the result did not change," explained Bente Philippsen, a postdoc at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University.

Accidental Discovery

The research project initially began as an analysis of the Tollund Man's diet, but curiosity led researchers to re-date his remains.

This re-dating was not planned; it was an afterthought that yielded unexpected and groundbreaking results. Philippsen credited her colleague Marie Kanstrup for the initiative to re-date the bones while they were already under examination.

The Tollund Man: A Link to the Past

Discovered in 1950 during peat cutting in Bjældskovdal, the Tollund Man's body was remarkably well-preserved with a noose still around his neck, suggesting he was hanged.

Estimated to be between 30-40 years old at the time of his death, his remains offer a window into the past, now firmly anchored in a timeline that intersects with that of one of history's greatest philosophers, Socrates.

Now a key exhibit at the Museum Silkeborg, the Tollund Man continues to fascinate both the public and the scientific community, serving as a direct link to the distant past and highlighting the capabilities of modern archaeological science.

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