Dr. Van Der Sanden Talks About Bog Bodies

 

 

Since our new special exhibit Mummies of the World has officially opened for all to come and see, we thought it would be a good idea to publish a series of blogs about the different kinds of mummies featured in the exhibit.

Oh yes, not all mummies are the same. In fact, not all are created on purpose! Although the Ancient Egyptians and a few other cultures around the world mummified their dead in preparation for the afterlife, the bog bodies of Northern Europe were not “prepared” at all.

The most famous bog bodies (aka “bog mummies”) have been found in places like Ireland, Denmark and Germany, and were mummified by completely natural processes. Some of them may have been simply buried by family and friends, others may have been executed or even sacrificed to Celtic of Irish Deities,  but all were sunk into the moist, air-tight depths of the local bogs.

The air-tight qualities of the thick, mossy material that make up bogs are part of the reason that the bodies are so well preserved. Without oxygen, bacteria can’t survive to do its dirty business of decomposing dead plant and animal material.

In the cold, acidic, anaerobic environment of a bog, not much other than moss can grow. Sphagnum moss is an important part of the makeup of Northern European bogs. As the moss continues to grow, older layers are buried beneath the surface and die. This dead moss does not decompose in the anaerobic environment of the bog, though. Instead, it is compressed deeper and deeper under the surface of the bog until it becomes peat. During this transformative process, chemicals are released that seem to have a further effect on the preservation of the body. The acidity of these chemicals help to stop the growth of bacteria. Tannins are one type of chemical released during this process. These acids are used in the production of leather (you may have also heard the term thrown around in discussions of wine), and in the bog they may help to preserve the soft tissue.

Bog bodies offer a rare opportunity for researchers too peer into the past and examine the bodies of a culture that did not traditionally preserve the bodies of their dead, and so left relatively small number of well preserved remains to be examined by scientists. 

So when you think of mummies, don’t just think of cultures like the Ancient Egyptians, or even those in South America that artificially mummified their dead. Sometimes nature does all the work. Here at HMNS we have even have mummified dinosaurs on display in our Hall of Paleontology!

Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal

In Texas! The Exhibition you can view hundreds of objects, each with fascinating back stories. Some of these amazing artifacts belonged to well known national heroes and some to local heroes.

As I stroll through the exhibit’s Civil War section, I’m often drawn to one small and shiny object named the Davis Guards medal. I’m a history nerd, but until recently I wasn’t familiar with Davis Guards metals.

Engraved on the metal are the words: Jack White| Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. A document in the case above the metal has the signature of a 1st Lieutenant by the name of R W Dowling.

Together, these objects reveal an interesting story.

It’s a story this history “connoisseur” still might have overlooked if something in the text panel had not caught my eye. According to the panel, the Davis Guards medal on display is one of three held in private hands, and it is one of only seven that are known to still be in existence.

However, being rare does not always translate to being fascinating. As I was preparing to begin my research for our upcoming Discovering the Civil War exhibition, I noticed something interesting.

On a rough draft of objects we hope to have on display is yet ANOTHER shiny disk with the words: Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. I was intrigued. If only three of these are in the hands of private collectors and HMNS may have the honor of displaying a second Davis Guard medal, this piece is more fascinating.

But who was R W Dowling? What was his connection to the Davis Guards medal? What happened at the Battle of Sabine Pass? And most importantly, why is this medal significant? Since the discovery of the second medal to be displayed I have been obsessively researching to find more about these topics.

The Davis Guards Medal
The Davis Medal
See more photos from the Texas exhibit on Flickr.

Richard William “Dick” Dowling was born in 1838 in an area called Tuam (pronounced choo-um), which is located in Ireland.

He and his family left Ireland at the start of the potato famine in 1845 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. While living in Louisiana, Dowling’s parents and four of his siblings died of yellow fever in 1853. After the loss of his parents, he and a few siblings moved across the Louisiana border to Texas.

Dowling settled in Houston where he met, fell in love with, and married Elizabeth Odlum. With the support of Elizabeth’s family, Dowling was able to start and maintain several successful saloon businesses and became a founding member of the Houston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 (which later became the Houston Fire Department), and even owned one of the first oil and gas companies in Texas. His saloons were outfitted with gas lighting as a result of this investment. Richard Dowling was indeed a prominent local businessman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, like many men during this time, Dick Dowling went off to war.

He joined a group of other Irish immigrants. His group would help the Confederate army remove the Union blockade during the Battle of Galveston. During that battle, the USS Westfield sank off the coast (HMNS will display some objects from the USS Westfield in the Discovering the Civil War exhibition). Dowling and his group were in charge of guarding the coast of Texas until they were given a new assignment, the Sabine Pass.

Dowling was placed in charge of a group of 47 men of the Davis Guards, which was named after the current Confederate States of America’s president. Under his uncompromising leadership, he drilled his men until they could properly shoot up to 2,000 yards, which was the length to clear the Sabine Pass.

What Dowling and his men did on September 8, 1863 would go down in history as one of the greatest military upsets on American soil.

The 47 men of the Davis Guard were faced with 5,000 enemy soldiers. Instead of drawing back, according to his official report, Dowling and his men used a motto that once brought heartache to Texas.

They shouted “Victory or Death” as they aggressively attacked the Union forces.

After 45 minutes, the Union soldiers retreated and the battle was over. The Davis Guards hadn’t lost a single man. They captured 350 prisoners, and 50 Union soldiers lay dead that day in a solid victory for the CSA. The Union forces would never again threaten Texas in a major confrontation until the Battle of Palmito Ranch (also a CSA victory), which was fought over a month after the Civil War had ended. The victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass was one of the reasons that Texas was the only southern state to never be successfully occupied during the Civil War.

President Jefferson Davis was so pleased with the underdog victory that he asked the Confederate Congress to approve the commission of medals for the Davis Guard.

The medal is thought to be the only one commissioned by the Confederate Congress. Each Guards member would receive a silver round medal attached to a green ribbon (in honor of their Irish background) that was engraved with Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863 on one side, and on the other D.G. with either a Maltese cross or the CSA flag below the initials. Naturally, being an honorary member of the Davis Guards, President Davis was also given a medal along with every Davis Guards member.

The Confederate flag was the shortest reigning flag in Texas’ history, and even though the “war of northern aggression” would bring this chapter in our history to a close, it provided us with local Texas heroes.

In Texas! The Exhibition there are amazing artifacts from Texas’ proud past. Don’t miss the chance to see a rare part of history that is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

And don’t forget to join us in October for our new special exhibition Discovering the Civil War!