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.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]


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