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Geoff Morley / University of Sheffield

Bronze-Age Brits May Have Mummified Their Dead

Geoff Morley / University of Sheffield

We generally associate mummies with ancient Egypt. In fact, mummified bodies have been found all over the world. People in what are now the U.S., Japan, and Ireland regularly mummified their dead, as did people in Peru, Italy, Australia, Libya, and China, to name a few. Now, it seems, we'll be adding the United Kingdom to that list. A recent examination of Bronze Age skeletons from all over the UK found signs that the bodies had been intentionally preserved. 

The bodies in question no longer look like mummies to the naked eye; as a result, earlier studies had dismissed the possibility of mummification. But a new team, armed with a new method, took a closer look at the bones, and what they found was amazing.

Image Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Using microscopic bone analysis, the researchers looked at the amount of bacterial damage on the skeletons; bones that decompose naturally show severe bioerosion from bacteria, while preserved bodies show little. They compared the amount of damage to that seen on known mummies from Ireland and Yemen. The amount of bioerosion matched, indicating that the UK bodies had been deliberately preserved.

The research team, led by Sheffield University's Tom Booth, concluded that the practice likely began around 2400 BCE—which means that these early Britons were mummifying their dead around the same time as the Egyptians and the Chinchorro people of Chile were mummifying theirs.

Each culture had its own preservation technique. The Egyptians embalmed their dead over the course of several months, then wrapped the bodies in bandages before laying them to rest in sarcophagi. The Chinchorro people “rebuilt” their dead through a painstaking process involving straw, paste, skin, and hair. The Britons, it seems, had at least two methods. 

Image Credit: Martin Green

The 16 bodies, male and female, were collected from sites all over the country, and many of them seem to have been left intentionally in peat bogs. The cold, acidic bogs were a favorite corpse-dumping ground in ancient Britain, but Booth and his team are the first to suggest the preservation-by-peat was intentional. This theory was bolstered by signs of heat treatment on two of the other bodies, which looked as though they had been smoked over a fire.

These aren't the first mummies found in the British Isles. Four bizarre "jigsaw" mummies, assembled from parts of different people, were discovered on the Scottish island of South Uist in 2001. But the new research is the first evidence that mummification may have been common practice throughout Bronze Age Britain.

“It’s possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient civilizations that mummified their dead,” Booth said this week in a press statement. He and his team plan to use their new method to look at another 30 skeletons from England, Scotland, and Wales. 

A report of the findings was published this week in the journal Antiquity.

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Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3100 Years Ago, an Elite Family Stashed Their Silver Jewelry in a Beer Jug
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

Instead of containing traces of alcohol, a 3100-year-old beer jug discovered by archaeologists in Israel was stuffed with silver jewelry. Unearthed in 2010 at the Bronze Age settlement of Megiddo, the vessel contained several dozen ancient baubles, ranging from bracelets to beaded works, according to Science News. One of the researchers, Eran Arie, presented the findings earlier this month in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

The jewelry-bearing jug likely belonged to a high-ranking Canaanite family, who hid it in the corner of a courtyard. A bowl, and perhaps a cloth shroud, was placed over the container to conceal it. It's unclear why the family left their expensive hoard there, as it likely comprised the majority of their personal wealth, but the find does shed light on how wealthy families tried to keep their valuables safe.

A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

 A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

The owners removed the jug's narrow neck to place the jewelry inside. The cache included 35 silver works—including earrings, rings, and a bracelet, wrapped in two linen cloths—along with carnelian and beads made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, which were once probably park of a necklace.

Experts haven't figured out who the jewelry's owners were, but one theory is that they were connected to the government because the courtyard and its surrounding building were once located near the city palace. Since the building appeared to have been destroyed—perhaps in a battle—it's thought that the family fled during a time of crisis, leaving their treasures to sit undetected for millennia. 

[h/t Science News]

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