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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Three Strange Tales Of Lake Preservation

Air Date: Week of

The remarkably well preserved face of “Tollund Man. ” (Photo from Sven Rosborn from the Museum of Foteviken in Sweeden)

People and things, lost in time, live on in lakes and bogs. The chemical properties of inland waters can prevent decomposition and keep the dead looking young. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah and lake expert John Downing of Iowa State University dredge up Three Strange Tales of Lake Preservation.



GELLERMAN: Seas have sea monsters. Swamps have swamp thing and lakes have…


GELLERMAN: …mummies. And Living on Earth's Ike Sriskandarajah has three scary but true science stories.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Tales of the dead resurfacing in murky bodies of water are alive and well in Hollywood. Take Friday the 13th: a camper called Jason who drowned in Crystal Lake as a boy has been returning for 30 years as a hockey-masked, man-child, with an axe to grind.

[SOUND FROM MOVIE "JASON": Jason, he came back. Don’t believe me, nobody does. Do you know how many lakes are probably called ‘Crystal Lake?’ The story could’ve happened anywhere dude…]

DOWNING: Every lake has got a monsters legend, right? Or it's bottomless, or it's hanging onto the dead in some sort of way.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Professor John Downing from Iowa State is a limnologist, a man who knows about lakes and their dark secrets.

DOWNING: The wicked limnologist. (LAUGHS) Yeah, right.


SRISKANDARAJAH: But Downing says lakes really do have certain properties that make dead things seem less dead.

Professor John Downing calls himself "the wicked limnologist." (Photo credit Marcia Downing and Katherine Downing Khaled)

DOWNING: From a liminological perspective, I would consider a body tossed into a lake to be what I call particulate organic carbon. It’s a big chunk of organic material…hmm - it may have had thoughts and hopes and dreams and a family and stuff, but it’s particulate organic carbon.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And there are a couple of things that help lakes preserve that lifeless chunk of carbon intact.

DOWNING: Deep waters in lakes often tend to be cooler than the surface, so there’s a refrigeration effect.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Then there are acids that help with preservation - especially tannic acid that leaches from oak trees and turns lakes brown.

DOWNING: Acid tends to decrease the amount of decomposition there is. And will penetrate into the big chunk of organic carbon, essentially tan it, as we tan leather.

SRISKANDARAJAH: On the other end of the pH scale… Base compounds harden a body through a process called saponification.

DOWNING: Saponification means basically making soap. When you make soap you add a base to fat and that fat then turns into a hard, less soluble material.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So, between the cool temperatures, leather making, soap making, and a few other traits - like low oxygen levels that deter hungry bacteria - lakes are very good mummy makers.

DOWNING: And looking into it, we kept finding these references to really interesting decomposition or lack of decomposition stories.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Which brings us to today’s feature: The Wicked Limnologist Presents: Three Strange Tales of Lake Preservation.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Our first story is about an Italian party boat: Too Much of a Wood Thing - sounds not too spooky…

One of Caligula’s ships recovered from Lake Nemi. (From Wikimedia Commons, taken in 1930)

DOWNING: Well, it's not spooky, but it was in fact a party put on by a monster and the monster would be Caligula.

[SFX: "Caligula Caesar, Emperor of Rome. Hail. Hail!" HORNS]

DOWNING: Caligula, Gaius Caesar, loved to have big parties. And Caligula had built two huge party boats that he had stationed on this little lake called Lago di Nemi - these big oak boats and they were somewhere just less than the size of a football field and they had marble floors and lead plumbing.

[SOUND FROM MOVIE: Caligula party post: “As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, we have gone to great expense to bring you the finest flesh of the Roman Empire,” MUSIC: Caligula and Mussolini]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Caligula’s party ended abruptly in 41 AD when he was stabbed in the back by members of the Roman Senate and his own security detail - 30 times. They also sunk his epic party boats to the bottom of Lake Nemi where they remained for 2000 years. Until another Italian dictator came along.

DOWNING: They kept trying to get down there with diving bells or free diving in various ways. But Mussolini’s engineers decided that they’d take the opposite approach, so they used the old aqueducts the Romans had and drained this lake right out, and hauled these perfectly preserved boats right out of the bottom of Lago di Nemi.


Lake Nemi is famous for its sunken Roman ships, including Caligula’s Party Boat. (“Lake Nemi” by George Inness, 1857 via Wikipedia)

DOWNING: Well, even the conservative press of the 1930s were saying that they were basically orgies. I think there’s no doubt that his parties were nothing that we’re likely to see for Halloween this year.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Speak for yourself, Professor…

[FROM MOVIE, FESTIVE MUSIC, MAN'S VOICE: "Most of the women here are respectable married ladies!" HAUNTING MUSIC]

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Wicked Limnologist’s next story is: Just Wait, It Gets Leather. It begins in Tollund, Denmark in 1950.

[MUSIC: String Sonata No 2 is A Major, 2nd movement, Rossini.]

DOWNING: People were digging peat and they found a human down in the peat, and they thought that it was possibly a recent murder. This man was in a fetal position but had a leather rope around his neck and was fully clothed in sort of leather clothing, sheepskin hat and things like that. And they thought, well, he looks a little odd.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The police were called, but they were baffled by the gnarled, leathery corpse. They brought in academics who used carbon dating, and they showed the man - now known as Tollund Man - was killed in 400 B.C. Strangled and dumped in a bog during Europe’s Iron Age, yet you can see the creases on his forehead, the stubble on his chin and his resting eyelids seem as though they still might open.

DOWNING: Oh, certainly! I mean, he’s basically tanned. He’s got very dark brown skin, but his face is perfectly natural. In fact he looks kind of relaxed in spite of the fact that he had been hanged and fed awful food.

[MUSIC: String Sonata No 2 is A Major, 2nd movement, Rossini.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s the other thing: his stomach was so well preserved that we know what the Tollund man ate 2,400 years ago.

DOWNING: Yeah, actually they did some analyses on his last meal and found that it was made out of 18 species of grass and weeds - some kind of gruel. And then they made it up and tried to eat it and they thought that maybe that was worse actually than the hanging.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Come for the soup, stay… FOREVER.

[MUSIC: Rossini, String Sonata N 3 in B flat Major.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which brings us to our third story, our wicked limnologist's favorite: Soap … on a Rope.

Dean Mabel Douglass founded the largest private women’s college in the country, then went missing for 30 years. (Image Uncredited)

DOWNING: This concerns Dr. Mabel Douglass who was the dean of a New Jersey college for women.


DOWNING: And in 1933 apparently she went out for a row from her cottage on Lake Placid to collect cedar and pine boughs in a little rowboat and got across Lake Placid, and she was never heard from again.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Her boat was found capsized against the shore, near the deepest part of the lake. Her family searched for her. Police dredged the lake and scoured nearby trails, but the dean went missing for 30 years.

DOWNING: And in 1963 there were some divers who were doing a deep water dive and found a body perfectly preserved down at the bottom of Lake Placid in 105 feet of water, lying on the bottom. And it was Mabel Douglass. I think the death was ruled accidental but she had a 50 pound anchor, apparently, attached to her neck. That was a pretty big accident.

Lake Placid is home to many legends, including the “lady that turned to soap.” (Photo from Wikipedia)

SRISKANDARAJAH: The divers’ report say her skin looked “something very much like soap, only hard.” Today, tour boat captains on Lake Placid scare guests with tales of how Dean Mabel Douglass turned into Dove. She went from missing to mummy to legend.

DOWNING: I believe that her tomb is in New York City and so it’s a popular visiting place on Halloween because although she died, she refused to die completely.

[MUSIC: String Sonata No 2 is A Major, 2nd movement, Rossini.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: You could say she lives in a liminal space.

DOWNING: (LAUGHS) Liminal - subliminal, right? Well, it was a sad, very sad case that she had been lost. But perfectly preserved and, therefore, not only in her academic role as dean did she do some academic good, but also help us to understand carbon preservation in lakes.

SRISKANDARAJAH: For limnologists, even wicked limnologists like Professor John Downing, understanding can turn legends into reality. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



“Body in Lake 30 Years That Of Missing Dean” (From The Evening Independent, Sep 26, 1963)

Most of the time John Downing is a not-so-wicked limnologist.


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