Ancient Scots mummified their dead

The ancient Egyptians were not the only ones to mummify their dead, according to a study published in ‘Antiquity’ that says prehistoric Scots created mummies too. Initial evidence for Scottish mummies was announced in 2005, when archaeologists unearthed three preserved bodies buried under two Bronze Age roundhouses in South Uist, Hebrides, at a site called Cladh Hallan. The bodies – an adult female, an adult male and an infant – date to between 1300 and 1500 BC.

“Distinctive microscopic and chemical changes in the bones showed that the bodies had not been placed in the ground immediately after death, but had been subject to conditions that may have enhanced their preservation,” says Professor Andrew Chamberlain, who worked on the 2005 investigations and the more recent ones.

Chamberlain, a University of Sheffield archaeologist, says the new evidence relates to the female mummy’s knee. Analysis of her remains, led by researcher Christie Cox, shows her knee was broken off before burial but long after her death. The scientists found the knee buried at another part of the site.

“[The knee] adds to the evidence for manipulation of the body parts long after death,” Chamberlain says, adding that the bones were dry before they were snapped apart.

Microscopic and chemical analysis also determined the bodies were subject to an acidic environment that enhanced preservation. That finding, and the arrangement of the bones, suggests the dead individuals were first wrapped tightly and then immersed into a peat bog. The scientists believe the bodies were then removed and carefully buried under the roundhouses, where individuals lived.

Bodies preserved in peat bogs have been found throughout Britain. With oxygen blocked, the bodies basically ferment in what has been described as a “slow cooking process” that causes them to tan and then darken.

Arranged stones marked the graves, which surprisingly were located right inside the entrance to the house. This would be like homeowners today having small cemeteries in the entry halls of their homes. “The floor above the burials was kept clear of debris from craft activities, cooking, etc, so it seems that the occupants of the house were aware of the presence of the bodies buried under the floor,” Chamberlain says. He believes that in Bronze Age Britain a transition occurred from “previous collective burial rites to a new burial rite in which individuals were placed under houses or within their own burial mounds”.

University of Reading archaeologist Professor Richard Bradley says the Cladh Hallan site is important as it preserves all elements of prehistoric life, including death. He says researchers in Britain usually encounter “fractured pieces of the past” but the site tells a whole story as it is a place “where people lived, and also where they buried their ancestors”.

Source: Viegas, J. 2007. Ancient Scots mummified their dead. Discovery News.

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