The Mysterious Mummies of Cladh Hallan

In 2001 an archaeological excavations at Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist have uncovered the remains of what are believed to be a mummified Bronze Age bodies, buried under the floor of a prehistoric house. The skeletons looked very unusual, like Peruvian mummies. DNA tests on British prehistoric mummies revealed they were made of body parts from several different people, arranged to look like one person. And 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. The four bodies discovered on South Uist, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides were the first evidence of deliberate mummification carried out in ancient times ever found in Britain - and is without doubt one of the most important archaeological discoveries made in recent years.

The house in which the mummy skeletons were buried was part of a unique Bronze Age complex (c. 1100-200 BC), which is as mysterious as the preserved corpses that were buried there. The prehistoric settlement's main feature is a row of four or more roundhouses, all built as a single structure with party walls.

The excavation team led by Dr. Mike parker Pearson of Sheffield University first uncovered the remains of two adults within the north house, then in the central house they found the burial of a three-month-old-child child and two dogs, and in the southern house the burial of one child. Four of these burials, the two adults (a female in her 40s and a male) in the north house and the children in the central and southern houses, were placed in the ground before the first floors of peaty sand were laid down. It is these burials, construed as pre-construction offerings, which also gave evidence for the prior mummification and curation of the bodies.

The adult skeletons were tightly folded, in the same way that Peruvian mummies were bundled up, hands and knees tucked tightly under the chin. The female skeleton had a full set of teeth except for her two upper lateral incisors which had been removed from her jaw and placed in her hands. The left tooth was placed in her left hand by her head and the right tooth was in her right hand below her knee. Absence of trauma on the two teeth or their sockets suggests that they were removed at some time after death.

Through carbon dating, the adult bodies; one individual (a male) had died in around 1,600 BC - but had been buried a full six centuries later, in around 1,000 BC. What is more, a second individual (a female) had died in around 1,300 BC - and had to wait 300 years before being interred. The archaeologists thought this strange. They had never encountered anything like it before. If the skeletons had been left unburied for 600 or 300 years they would have ended up as just a pile of bones. It seemed that perhaps in some way the sinews and skin had been deliberately preserved, to permanently hold the skeletons together.

According to 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. The male skeleton was also composed of bones from three different individuals--the post-cranial skeleton belonged to one man, the head and cervical vertebrae to another and the mandible came from a third. There is no evidence that later material was inserted into an earlier grave; on excavation all skeletal elements appeared in fact to be articulated. Prof Parker Pearson said, "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."

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 test suggested very strongly that the corpses had not been allowed to decompose for long. It indicated that the process of decomposition had been halted at an early stage - presumably when the body was placed in the peat bog, or perhaps if it had been eviscerated prior to immersion in the bog. The fact that these ancient remains were preserved with their skeletons intact shows that Bronze Age Britons knew exactly how long to leave their dead suspended in the peat bog's murky depths - long enough to preserve them well enough to survive above ground for hundreds of years but not so long that they lost form.


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