Mummification may have been much more widely practised in Bronze Age Britain than was previously thought, new research suggests.
Direct evidence for deliberately preserved bodies was thought to be rare in this country, as although a small number of ‘bog bodies’, preserved in peat, have been excavated in Britain and Ireland, our cool, wet climate means that soft tissue rarely survives on prehistoric human remains.
The discovery of the Cladh Hallan burials – composite constructions of body parts from multiple people (CA 273) on South Uist – provided the first clues that skeletons might represent former mummies who had lost their preserved flesh, however. As the composites’ parts varied dramatically in date, it appeared that the earliest pieces must have been curated. Furthermore, microscopic analysis of the bones’ internal structure revealed something else unusual: they showed little sign of the bacterial tunnelling, or ‘bioerosion’, that occurs when a body is buried immediately after death and begins to decompose.
Dr Tom Booth of the Natural History Museum has built on this study, working with colleagues from the University of Sheffield, UCL, and the University of Manchester to compare the Cladh Hallan remains to a desiccated mummy from Yemen, and a bog body from Co. Roscommon. These too showed limited bioerosion, suggesting a link with bodies where the flesh had originally been preserved.
To expand this picture, the team next examined bone samples taken from 301 individuals from sites across Britain. These ranged widely in date, from the Neolithic to the Victorian period, but while most showed levels of bioerosion consistent with immediate burial, the Bronze Age bones stood out. Almost half – 16 out of 34 – had excellent internal preservation, hinting at mummification.
These remains come from sites scattered from the Scottish Highlands to Dorset, and range in date from c.2200-750 BC, indicating that such practices were widespread and long-lived, Tom suggests. As only two of the affected skeletons came from naturally waterlogged contexts, moreover, it seems likely that a range of preservation techniques were used. Samples from Neats Court in Kent show traces of discoloration that might indicate being smoked or dehydrated over a fire, while others may have been temporarily submerged in boggy environments, or had their organs removed to prevent decomposition.
‘This suggests that mummification was more common in Britain than it might immediately appear – which, given what we know that Bronze Age people were keeping and circulating parts of the dead in other ways, is not surprising,’ Tom said. ‘We hope that further research will shed more light on whether this also took place in the Iron Age and Neolithic period, and in prehistoric Continental Europe.’
The research was originally published in Antiquity journal (http://antiquity.ac.uk/current).