The Egyptians are well known for their funeral practise of mummifying the dead, normally achieved by removing the organs and then wrapping the body tightly in bandages, a process that preserves the corpses for thousands of years. But it now seems that at around the same time, people far away in northwestern Europe were doing a similar thing.
The damp climate of Britain might not seem like a great place for preserving the dead, as organic material breaks decomposes quickly in wet environments. But during the Bronze Age it seems people managed to get around this, possibly by smoking bodies over a fire or purposefully placing them in peat bogs. The evidence comes from the microstructure of bones dating as far back as 4,000 B.C.E, all that now remains of these ancient mummies.
Suspicion of the mummification practise happening in Bronze Age Britain was raised when researchers discovered two burials in Cladh Hallan, Scotland. Carbon dating showed that the bones had not been buried for possibly hundreds of years after the person died. This made them wonder just how widespread the custom might have been.
But there’s a problem. Unlike in dryer climates, once a body has been mummified and then buried in wetter areas like northern Europe, due to the damp environment all that often survives are the bones. So the researchers set out to find a way to tell the difference between bones from someone who had been buried straight away, and those from a mummy.
When bodies decompose, the bacteria that were once living in the gut burst out and start to feed off the remains. When the microorganisms reach the bones, they eat their way through them, leaving tell-tale channels. Mummification stops this process from happening, meaning that the bones stay intact. Tom Booth and his team from the University of Sheffield found that by using microscopic bone analysis, they could identify the presence or absence of these channels, which would indicate whether the body had been mummified. Their research is to be published in the journal Antiquity.
They then looked at museum collections of over 300 bones dating from around 6,000 years ago to the modern day. They found that while only around 3% of the bones from the Neolithic period showed evidence of preservation, almost half of those from the Bronze Age appear to have been mummied. From Kent in the south to Cladh Hallan in the north, it seems that mummification in Bronze Age Britain was a common practise.
But rather than wrapping them in bandages, or burying them in a dry desert, the team suspect that the bodies were instead smoked over a fire or preserved in a bog. The reasons behind this ritualistic preservation, however, remain unknown. Many societies throughout history have preserved the dead, but for a wide variety of reasons. Booth speculates that, rather bizarely, the bodies may have been smoked then kept in the house and brought out during disputes over land ownership, so people could prove their ancestors had worked on the land. Or maybe there were more spiritualistic reasons, as some of the bodies studied seem to have been cobbled together from multiple people.
Either way, the research gives a rare insight into the funerary practises of ancient Britons, the lives of which very little is known about. The researchers hope next to apply their microscopic bone analysis to remains found across the rest of Europe, and find out just how widespread the practise was.