The Mystery of Britain’s 'Franken-mummies’
Two 3,000-year-old human skeletons dug up in the Outer Hebrides have been found to be a jigsaw of at least six different people who died hundreds of years apart.
When two almost perfectly preserved 3,000-year-old human skeletons were dug up on a remote Scottish island, they were the first evidence that ancient Britons preserved their dead using mummification.
The scientists who uncovered the bodies also found clues that one of them – a man buried in a crouching position – was not a single individual, but had in fact been assembled from the body parts of several different people.
The discovery began a 10-year investigation into what had led the bronze-age islanders to this strange fate.
Now, a new study using the latest in DNA technology has found that the two skeletons together comprise the remains of at least six different individuals, who died several hundred years apart.
The researchers now believe that large extended families, living under one roof, may have shared their homes with the mummified remains of their dead ancestors, before deliberately putting the bodies together to look like single corpses – possibly in an attempt to demonstrate the uniting of different families.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London who led the research, said: “It looks like these individuals had been cut up and put back together to look like one person.”
He said the mixing of the body parts could have been due to “misfortune or carelessness”, but added: “The merging of their identities may have been a deliberate act, perhaps designed to amalgamate different ancestries into a single lineage.”
The skeletons were unearthed in 2001 while Professor Parker Pearson, who was then working at Sheffield University, was examining the remains of buildings at a site called Cladh Hallan in a sand quarry in South Uist.
The site had been a bronze-age settlement which was inhabited for well over 1,000 years.
While digging out the foundations of one of the houses, the archaeologists found the skeletons of an adult man and a woman they believed to be aged around 40.
Dating of the two skeletons showed they appeared to be over 3,000 years old and predated the house they were buried under by several hundred years.
Both had been buried in a crouched position on their sides and from the way the bones remained connected, it appeared they had been carefully preserved.
Analysis of the bones indicated that the bodies had started to rot after death but the decay was abruptly halted.
The mineral content of the bones suggests they were placed in an acidic peat bog, which helped to preserve them in a primitive form of mummification before they were removed and kept above ground, the researchers claim.
Before the discovery, mummification at that time in history was thought to have been restricted to Egypt and South America.
Carbon dating of the bones in the male skeleton revealed while the jaw came from someone who had died around 1440BC-1260BC, the rest of the skull came from a man who died some 100 years earlier, and the remainder of the body from someone who died 500 years before that.
In a new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers used DNA testing to examine the female skeleton, which carbon dating suggested had belonged to a woman who died between 1300 BC and 1130 BC.
By examining genetic material known as mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down only by females, the researchers found the jaw bone, a leg bone and an arm bone all came from different individuals.
Other body parts could have come from other individuals too, but it was impossible to obtain suitable DNA to analyse. The testing did suggest, however, that skull could have belonged to a relative or the same individual as the arm.
Physical analysis of the 'female’ skeleton has also suggested the jaw and skull in fact belonged to a male.
From its position, the researchers believe the body had been wrapped up tightly and kept above ground for several hundred years before it was finally buried. Shortly after death, two of its teeth were removed with one placed in each hand.
Exactly what happened to these people after their death and why they were finally buried in this way remains a mystery, but the scientists are continuing to unpick what happened.
Professor Pearson said it appeared the crude mummification process had allowed the bodies to survive the wet and wild Scottish climate for several hundred years before the soft tissue gradually began to degrade after they were buried.
In around 1000 BC, seven houses were built in a terrace, with the two mummies, which were then hundreds of years old, buried beneath one of the homes.
Less well preserved human remains were also found under some of the other houses and many had offerings of bronze artefacts found with them.
The inhabitants of the buildings appear to have been largely self-sufficient, using clay moulds to cast bronze swords, spears and ornaments. The remains of cattle bones suggests they kept livestock and may have grown barley for food.
Analysis of the bones suggest they ate very little seafood despite living on an island, instead growing their food on the low lying grassy plain next to the houses.
The building where the two mummified skeletons were found may have even become a “house of the dead” with priest-like people living there, professor Pearson believes.
He added: “Having six preserved body parts to hand indicates there was sufficient space in which to store them for some time prior to their reassembly.
“This raises the possibility that these dead either shared accommodation with the living or were kept in separate, as yet unidentified, 'mummy houses’ which were warm and dry enough to inhibit soft tissue decay.”