Building on a previous study conducted at a single Bronze Age burial site in the Outer Hebrides, scientists used microscopic analysis to compare the bacterial bioerosion of skeletons from various sites across the UK. (Credit: Seán Ó Domhnaill/Flickr)

bones

Did Bronze Age Brits mummify their dead?

Mummification may have been a wide-spread funerary practice among ancient Britons during the Bronze Age, a new study suggests.

Researchers analyzed skeletons at several Bronze Age burial sites across the UK and discovered that the remains of some ancient Britons are consistent with a prehistoric mummy from northern Yemen and a partially mummified body recovered from a sphagnum peat bog in County Roscommon, Ireland.

“It’s possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient civilizations that mummified their dead.”

Building on a previous study conducted at a single Bronze Age burial site in the Outer Hebrides, scientists used microscopic analysis to compare the bacterial bioerosion of skeletons from various sites across the UK with the bones of the mummified bodies from Yemen and Ireland.

mummified skeleton
Skeletons found in Britain that were mummified during the Bronze Age. (Credit: Geoff Morley)
mummified skeleton
(Credit: Geoff Morley)

Archaeologists widely agree that the damp British climate is not favorable to organic materials and all prehistoric mummified bodies that may be located in the UK will have lost their preserved tissue if buried outside of a preservative environment such as a bog.

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“The problem archaeologists face is finding a consistent method of identifying skeletons that were mummified in the past—especially when they discover a skeleton that is buried outside of a protective environment,” says Tom Booth of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield.

“To help address this, our team has found that by using microscopic bone analysis archaeologists can determine whether a skeleton has been previously mummified even when it is buried in an environment that isn’t favorable to mummified remains.

“We know from previous research that bones from bodies that have decomposed naturally are usually severely degraded by putrefactive bacteria, whereas mummified bones demonstrate immaculate levels of histological preservation and are not affected by putrefactive bioerosion.”

Earlier investigations have shown that mummified bones found in the Outer Hebrides were not entirely consistent with mummified remains found elsewhere because there wasn’t a complete absence of bacterial bioerosion.

However, armed with a new technique, the team were able to re-visit the remains from the Outer Hebrides and use microscopic analysis to test the relationship between bone bioerosion and the extent of soft tissue preservation in bone samples from the Yemeni and Irish mummies.

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Their examinations revealed that both the Yemeni and Irish mummies showed limited levels of bacterial bioerosion within the bone and therefore established that the skeletons found in the Outer Hebrides as well as other sites across Britain display levels of preservation that are consistent with mummification.

The research team also found that the preservation of Bronze Age skeletons at various sites throughout the UK is different to the preservation of bones dating to all other prehistoric and historic periods, which are generally consistent with natural decomposition. Furthermore, the researchers also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead.

“Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.

“The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period.”

The research also suggests that funerary rituals that we may now regard as exotic, novel, and even bizarre were practiced commonly for hundreds of years by our predecessors, Booth says.

“It’s possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient civilizations that mummified their dead.”

Source: University of Sheffield

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