Bronze Age mummies identified in Britain

Preserved skeletons from ancient England and Scotland show mummification may have been widespread

Bronze age skeleton

MUMMY BONES  A Bronze Age skeleton excavated in southeastern England displays so little bacterial damage from decomposition that it must come from a body that was mummified shortly after death, a new study concludes. In this case, bone damage suggests the body was dried out in a smoke room.

Geoff Morley

Widespread mummification of the dead in ancient Britain has been kept under wraps — until now.

Microscopic bone studies indicate that bodies buried at sites throughout Britain were intentionally mummified during the Bronze Age, between about 4,200 and 2,750 years ago, say bioarchaeologist Thomas Booth of the Natural History Museum in London and colleagues.

Bones from 16 of 34 Bronze Age Britons exhibit little to no bacterial damage, Booth’s team reports in the October Antiquity. A lack of such damage signals that natural or artificial mummification blocked rapid decomposition of a dead body’s flesh.

The new findings “raise the question of how widespread such mummification might have been beyond Britain,” remarks biological anthropologist Martin Smith of Bournemouth University in Poole, England.

At a time when ruling classes increasingly controlled farmland, “mummified bodies could be used to highlight an individual’s lineage and legitimize claims to ancestral lands and rights,” Booth says.

Mummies from ancient Egypt and South America’s Andes region were preserved in hot, dry climates that deprive tissue-destroying gut bacteria of moisture needed to survive. Britain’s damp climate provides no bacterial protection. Any once-mummified bodies there are now skeletons, unless buried in watery bogs where a lack of oxygen kills gut bacteria. Study coauthor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London led a team that in 2005 reported preliminary skeletal evidence, based on a lack of bacterial damage, of Bronze Age mummification at a Scottish site.

FLEX TIME A bone analysis indicates that this Bronze Age skeleton from southern England comes from a mummified body. The individual’s curled up position is consistent with the body having been bundled and stored before being buried. Cambridge Archaeological Unit

In the new study, Booth’s group examined the remains of two ancient cases of known mummification as an initial test of whether skeletons from previously mummified bodies can be identified. One individual’s body had rapidly dried out in a desert in Yemen. The other had been found in an Irish peat bog.

Little bacterial damage appeared on a bone from the Yemeni body. Slightly more, but still minimal bone destruction was found on the Irish body, which apparently started to decompose before being immersed in the bog.

Other researchers previously reported near or total absence of bacterial damage on the bones of 10 mummified people, including Ötzi the Iceman (SN:  9/25/10, p. 14), whose body was found frozen in the Italian Alps.

The results mean researchers can now identify cases of ancient mummification from bones alone, Booth says. “There is such a thing as a mummified skeleton.” 

Comparable signs of mummification characterized bones from 16 Bronze Age individuals studied by Booth’s group. Included in this set were the bones from two graves at a site called Cladh Hallan on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands that Parker Pearson studied in 2005. The new findings confirm Parker Pearson’s initial report and extend Bronze Age mummification into central and southern England.

Parker Pearson and his colleagues had found that each Cladh Hallan burial contained body parts from three different individuals. Radiocarbon dating indicates that those six people died several hundred years before being interred beneath a roundhouse around 3,000 years ago.

In contrast to “mummified skeletons,” bones from bodies that have decomposed rapidly display extensive bacterial damage when examined under a microscope. So did nearly all bones — mainly upper-leg bones — from 35 individuals buried at British farming villages dating to before the Bronze Age and 183 people interred up to about 2,000 years after the Bronze Age, Booth’s team finds. The few exceptions involved cases where factors such as dismemberment of body parts after death or treatment of bodies with lime probably deterred decomposition, Booth says.

It’s hard to say for sure how Bronze Age Britons mummified dead bodies. Some bones with signs of mummification contain damage consistent with exposure to low-level heat. In these cases, bodies may have been dried out in smokehouses, Booth says. Bronze Age communities probably also mummified bodies in bogs and by removing internal organs of the dead, he adds.

Storing the deceased above ground for long periods would have aided in slowing decomposition, says biological anthropologist Christopher Knüsel of the University of Bordeaux in France. Several Bronze Age individuals identified as having been mummified were buried with their legs tucked under their chins, suggesting they had been bundled and stored somewhere before being placed in graves, Knüsel explains. Delaying burials for powerful individuals may have enabled extended funeral ceremonies and rituals aimed at reorganizing the Bronze Age social order, Knüsel speculates.

Says archaeologist Haagen Klaus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.: “Booth’s paper opens a new window on interactions of the living with the dead in Bronze Age Europe.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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