When the bodies were first discovered in 2001, it seemed like business as usual: that is if your business happened to be mummy excavation. For Michael Parker-Pearson and his team of international researchers it was, and the island of South Uist in the diverse archipelago that is the Outer Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland was a historical dream. With a history that stretches back to the Mesolithic era, South Uist is an absolute must for Viking enthusiasts—the western coast of the island was densely populated from approximately 2000 BC until the very end of the Vikings rein around 1300 AD.
Hoping to gain a better understanding about Britain’s Bronze Age (2200 BC to 800 BC), the team of archeologists focused on a set of three roundhouses at Cladh Hallan, a village named after a local graveyard. It was while searching beneath the foundations of one of these houses, believed to be around 3,000 years old, that the remains of a teenage girl and a 3-year-old child were discovered and removed.
Another two bodies were also discovered, a man and a woman who appeared to have been bound tightly into the fetal position—evidence of a possible mummification process. Based on how well the remains had been preserved, the team could infer that the bodies had some level of chemical preservation performed to them. Chemical evidence pointed to the likelihood that the bodies were inserted into a nearby peat bog for at least a year, maybe longer. (Due to these bogs’ high levels of acidity and low levels of oxygen, bacteria cannot get to the body and break down the body tissue.) Afterwards, the bodies were removed and buried.
Even despite this, the team was still left with their doubts about the bodies. For one thing, the female’s jaw did not fit properly with her skull. As for the male, arthritis present in his neck was nowhere to be found anywhere else throughout his spine. The questions left the group puzzled and pushed them towards greater in-depth analysis. Eventually, the team agreed that the remains of the male were actually a collection of at least three different bodies.
Terry Brown, of the University of Manchester, took a closer look at the DNA of the female and found something similar. According to his findings, her lower jaw, arm and thigh bone each came from different people and were placed together (possibly by being strung together) sometime between 1310 BC and 1130 BC. As puzzling as a situation as this was, an even bigger question remained as to why these individuals had been intentionally preserved and buried in this way.
Parker-Pearson believes, and there is strong evidence to suggest, that this is all a reflection on the importance paid by the people of these times to land rights and family ties. Around 1500 BC, when rituals like mummification was gaining in popularity across Britain, the culture was “at a time when land ownership—communal rather than private, most likely—was being marked by the construction of large-scale field systems,” Parker-Pearson explained. “Rights to land would have depended on ancestral claims, so perhaps having the ancestors around ‘in the flesh’ was their prehistoric equivalent of a legal document.”
As primitive as it sounds, it must have worked for the time, and now we are left with the bodies that deeply suggest it.
Photo Credit: www.ornl.gov/info/library/ornlnews/images/bogmummies.jpg