Two skeletons from Cladh Hallan, on South Uist in the Western Isles Scotland, seem to have been deliberately mummified – and one was only buried an estimated five hundred years after he died, both of the skeletons provide evidence of mummification and post mortem manipulation of body parts. Perhaps these practices were widespread in Bronze Age Britain?
Based on radiocarbon evidence from the male’s skull and the female’s tibia, the male is believed to have died around 1600 BC, and the female at around 1300 BC. However, other tests showed they were both buried around 1120 BC.
The Cladh Hallan Mummies represent the only proof, to date, that Britons in the Bronze Age practiced mummification. The remains exhibit strong evidence that the bodies were preserved by placing them in an acidic environment, probably a peat bog. The preservation effect of peat bogs would have been well known at the time as people would regularly have seen preserved artefacts as they dug up the peat to fuel their fires.
As an interesting aside, the male mummy actually predates Tutankhamun by several hundred years!
South Uist was heavily populated from around 2000 BC until the end of the Viking period over three thousand years later, and the mummies were found in an unusually well preserved group of Late Bronze Age / Iron Age roundhouses. These were constructed as a row of four roundhouses all built as a single structure with party walls. The environment at the time would have consisted of grasslands, sand dunes and a beach – and over 200 settlements from this period have been found in the wider area.
Five humans, (three of them children), and two dogs were buried within the huts, most in the north-east quadrant, which is consistent with other burial practice in the area. The children and dogs were buried and the floor and huts built over them, but the two mummified adults seem to been buried by digging through the floor within the houses.
The male bones were examined by X-ray scattering which showed that they were partially mineralised with larger than normal crystals towards the outside of the bone (which implies an environmentally acidic burial, such as in peat). Osteological and stratigraphic evidence on the woman’s bones demonstrates that the left knee was broken off while the body was still articulated but that the removed bones were buried while still in articulation. However, as this was a considerable period after death it shows very long-term preservation of the soft tissue – ie mummification.
Mummification during the British Bronze Age points to a locally developed innovation which has little to do with mummies from other parts of the world. In Egypt we know that body preservation was to ensure that the pharaohs, priests and nobles could exist in the afterlife. In Scotland it may also have secured a place in an afterworld but, perhaps more importantly, the mummies were unburied for hundreds of years and would have been available to watch over the living. They were the past ancestors personified, and possibly the guardians of ancient traditions.
The Bronze Age was a time of transformation in Britain’s prehistoric past, when the landscapes, which had been dominated by the barrows and cairns of the dead, were replaced by, (according to Mike Parker Pearson who was in charge of the excavation), “Landscapes of the living, filled with houses, settlements and field systems. This change is particularly evident at Cladh Hallan around 1100 BC when these mummified, ancestral dead were deliberately buried within the solid and imposing roundhouses which marked a significant change from the small and ephemeral houses of the Earlier Bronze Age.”
So, I hear you ask, are there likely to be any more mummies found in the UK and why wasn’t evidence found before? Well, the evidence of mummification is more scientific and far harder to spot than with Egyptian mummies and perhaps nobody actually looked for the subtle signs, especially considering the leap of wisdom the excavators had to make. Now, however, the floodgates may open ….
by Gerry Palmer
With thanks to Professor Mike Parker Pearson (Sheffield University) for permission to use Cladh Hallan photographs.