Source: The Telegraph
Tests on prehistoric mummies found in the Outer Hebrides have revealed that they were made of body parts from several different people – but arranged to look like one person.
7:00AM BST 27 Aug 2011
The four bodies discovered in 2001 on South Uist are the first evidence in Britain of deliberate mummification.
It is thought the body parts may have come from people in the same families – and were used for spiritual guidance. The skeletons looked very unusual – like Peruvian mummies.
Sheffield University’s Prof Mike Parker Pearson said the mummies had not been buried straight after preservation.
A team from the University of Sheffield first uncovered the remains of a three-month-old-child, a possible young female adult, a female in her 40s and a male under the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan.
But recent DNA tests on the remains carried out by the University of Manchester, show that the “female burial”, previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite.
It was made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male.
Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis showed that the male mummy was also a composite.
Prof Parker Pearson, an expert in the Bronze Age and burial rituals has a theory about why the mummies were put together this way.
“These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people’s body parts seems to be a deliberate act,” he said.
“I don’t believe these ‘mummies’ were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world.”
He said as part of ancestral worship, the mummies probably would have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.
Archaeologists found the mummies in the foundations of a row of unusual Bronze Age terraced roundhouses.
But after being radiocarbon dated, all were found to have died between 300 and 500 years before the houses were built, meaning they had been kept above ground for some time by their descendants.
In order for the bodies to have been found as articulated skeletons as they were, rather than piles of bones, some soft tissue preservation had to have taken place.
Further tests showed that the bones had become demineralised, a process caused by placing a body in an acidic environment like a peat bog.
The degree of demineralisation on the bones found showed that after death, the bodies had been placed in bogs for about a year to mummify them before being recovered.
Mr Parker Pearson said he believed there may be more examples of deliberate mummification in Britain that have been missed by archaeologists up until now.
The Cladh Hallan mummies had been carefully placed in the crouch burial position, a style of burial where the body is drawn up into the foetal position, commonly found in the Bronze Age.
Archaeologists are sometimes puzzled by how the bodies were contorted into such tight positions.
Prof Parker Pearson’s team are examining other crouch burial examples to see if these were in fact the mummified remains of much older bodies as well.
Early results are proving to be promising, as a sample from remains in Cambridge show that bacterial decay was halted at some point after death.
The results of the DNA work on the Cladh Hallan mummies will feature on the latest series of Digging For Britain on BBC Two in September.
The complex was made up of seven houses arranged as a terrace. The archaeologists have so far excavated three of them – and the dig has revealed that the structures were used not just as dwellings but also as places of ritual activity.
When the complex was constructed in around 1,000 BC, the two by then rather ancient mummies, along with the body of an entire sheep – possibly a sacrifice – were buried under the floor of the most northerly house.
At around the same time an unmummified 13-year-old girl who had recently died was buried under the floor of the middle house.
Underneath the southernmost of the three excavated structures, a three month old child was also interred around 1,000 BC. Also round 1,000, in the northernmost structure, a ritual was carried out in which large quantities of pottery were deliberately smashed.
A few years or decades later the cremated bones of some children were interred in the northern house – the one with the mummies under the floor. Then a couple of decades later still, more cremated children’s bones were deposited in the house, along with several deliberately smashed pots and three smashed quern stones.
A group of unfired smashed pots was then stacked up against the inside of the house wall and subsequently the entire house was moved one metre east and rebuilt, with a bronze bracelet being deposited, probably to mark the occasion. At around the same time the southern house was dismantled.
Over the next few hundred years rituals continued in the northern and middle structures. In around 900 BC a baby was buried in the north house and the building was again moved and rebuilt – this time two metres further west.
Archaeoligical journalist David Keys says:”The range of ritual activity in the complex is among the broadest known. It raises the question of whether the site was primarily a domestic/residential one or primarily a ritual and religious one.
“Who were the people that lived there? Were they ordinary Bronze Age tribes-people – or were they members of some ritual elite, potentially priests or shamans?
“And were the people who lived in the complex part of the same ethnic/ tribal group whose ancestors had been preserved and been venerated over the centuries? Or were they new arrivals or settlers, who had displaced the original ‘mummy-venerating’ population and had expropriated not only their land but their ancestors as well?
“Only future archaeological investigations will stand a chance of answering these tantalising questions. But, for the time being, the discovery of Britain’s first mummies should start to redefine key aspects of life and death in prehistoric Britain.”