THE LIFE AND DEATH

OF A DRUID PRINCE

The Story of Lindow Man,

An Archaeological Sensation

By Anne Ross and Don Robins

Summit Books. 176 pp. $19.95

IN AUGUST 1984, the well-preserved body of a man was found in a peat bog called Lindow Moss not far from Manchester, England. The police were summoned and the corpse put under a coroner's jurisdiction. But it soon became clear that -- even if foul play had been involved in the man's death -- it had happened long ago. The body was therefore handed over to scientists at the British Museum.

Archaeologists and chemists went to work, examining the enclosing peat, carbon-dating samples of the man's skin and bone, X-raying the body and subjecting it to an intense forensic analysis. They discovered that the man had been well-built, between 25 and 30 years old, and had been killed in a complex manner -- hit on the back of the head, garrotted with a cord which was still around his neck, stabbed deeply in the jugular vein and finally dropped in a pool of water.

The body was naked except for a fur armband. The stomach contained the remnants of a last meal, "unpromising dark brown sludge," which under botanical analysis proved to be a kind of barley biscuit or pancake, partly burned, with minute traces of mistletoe pollen. The man, though muscular, had suffered mild arthritis. His fingers were smooth and his fingernails well-manicured, his skin unblemished by wounds from battle or work.

The scientists decided that he had died between 50 and 100 A.D.

The fascination of a human life and its ultimate moments uncovered after nearly 2,000 years is undeniable. The water of peat bogs forms a wonderful preservative. The protective peat, cut for fuel or fertilizer, divulges whatever may have fallen or been deposited in it centuries before: elks, butter, swords, jewels, dogs. Human bodies have been found in Ireland, Britain and Denmark, where in the 1950s P.V. Glob studied the bodies of Tollund Man and Grauballe Man.

In his pioneering book The Bog People, Glob discussed these and other bog finds: an English country couple, who drowned in a bog in 1675, were found, reburied in the bog and for 40 years dug up annually for exhibition at a local fair; a man, in Sweden, found to have been murdered 600 years before; the body of a very small woman, found in County Down, Ireland, in 1781, and believed to have been a Danish Viking of very high rank. Glob wrote of "the special stamp of many of the bog people" -- "skin dark as brown leather," "with delicate features and neat hands and feet, not worn by heavy work." He thought many might have been sacrificial deposits.

Seamus Heaney, inspired by Glob, has written a number of evocative poems about these ancient prune-skinned victims and the earth deities they may have been sacrificed to. They seem to lie perfected in our memory, making us feel what they felt. As he asks of Grauballe Man:

Who will say "corpse"

to his vivid cast?

Who will say "body"

to his opaque repose?

The Life and Death of a Druid Prince arouses some of this feeling but only too quickly quenches it. After the precise scientific analysis, Anne Ross (an archaeologist and writer on Celtic matters) and Don Robins (chemist and archaeologist) amplify the evidence into a detailed "story" of Lindow Man: his name, his profession, his origins, the date and purpose of his death. Initial inference and conjecture are rapidly usurped by conclusive statement. The burnt biscuit was the equivalent of a short straw, deliberately taken; the victim concurred in his own sacfifice. The armband of fox fur leads the authors to the Gallic name for fox, Lovernios, which becomes their hero's name. THE RITUAL nature of his death and his fine appearance leave Ross and Robins with but one choice: "He was a pagan priest. Since he was a Celt, that meant one thing. He was a Druid." Despite the spread of at least half a century in the carbon-dating results, Lovernios's "supreme sacrifice" is placed in the specific year of 60 A.D., "the black year" in which the Romans destroyed a Celtic horde on Anglesey; the rebellion of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, was ruthlessly smashed; and few crops were planted. So the holiest sacrifice had to be made "for the vengeful gods to be placated."

Although a good deal of interesting historical matter and folklore is interwoven here, so too is much supposition. The Druids are acknowledged by the authors as "a long discredited topic," but they then set aside many of the reasons for this. There are hardly any written Celtic records of this period. Evidence of the Druids seems to lie in classical authors who repeat each other's largely hearsay material and often present it with a political twist. Ross and Robins call the Druids "a shadowy priesthood," but many modern authorities think of them rather as magi, or wise men. The only "Druid Prince" we actually know of, the Gallic chieftain Divitiacus, was in fact a Roman ally, known to both Cicero and Caesar -- though the latter never referred to him as a Druid and the former considered him a natural philosopher with powers of augury. Ross and Robins write of the armed mass of Celts on Anglesey "intermingled with Druids, both men and women," but Tacitus -- on whose account we depend -- refers simply to women running about among armed men and does not call them druidesses.

Lindow Man may or may not have been a Druid called Lovernios. Like the possibly fateful pancake, this book comes through as ill-baked, scholarship overleavened with speculation. At the end of it the body from the bog retains many of its secrets.

Anthony Bailey's recent works include a novel, "Major Andre," and a book about his travels on the Carolina coast, "The Outer Banks."