Archaeologists have long been drawn to the Outer Hebrides, the windswept and desolately beautiful island chain that lies off Scotland’s north-west coast.
For decades, the chief source of their fascination was to be found on the Isle of Lewis, towards the archipelago’s northern tip, where a number of prehistoric ritual sites were found to be clustered around the village of Callanish – including a late-Neolithic stone circle of comparable importance to Stonehenge.
More recently, however, attention has also been diverted a hundred-or-so miles south-east from Callanish – to the island of South Uist, where in 2003 an extraordinary discovery was made.
Amid the sand dunes of the site known as Cladh Hallan, a team led by Dr Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University uncovered the remains of four humans, including the body of a man who had died around 1600 BC and that of a woman from a couple of centuries later.
What was most remarkable about these bodies was that they showed signs of deliberate preservation – meaning that what had been uncovered there was the first evidence of prehistoric mummification ever found in Britain. Perhaps more remarkable still was that these bodies pre-dated even the most famous mummy of all – that of the pharoah Tutankhamun, who is believed to have died in c.1323 BC.
As we discover this week on The Past, many more discoveries have been made at Cladh Hallan in the nearly two decades since that find. In the new issue of Current Archaeology magazine and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Mike and his team bring us up to date, and explain how further excavations at the settlement have illuminated domestic life in the Bronze and Iron Ages.
We’ve also been digging into the archives in search of further evidence of the way Bronze Age Britons treated their dead: we visited the site of Must Farm in Cambridgeshire to see how fire and water helped to preserve a unique snapshot of life and death in the prehistoric Fens; we joined the team at Canada Farm in Dorset to understand why communities would go to such great lengths to put the bodies of the deceased on display before burial; and we examined the enigmatic ancient practice of creating composite skeletons, using bones from the bodies of different individuals who had sometimes died centuries apart.
And finally, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of British islands. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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