Tag Archives: mummies

Solved: the mystery of Britain’s Bronze Age mummies


Tom Booth, Natural History Museum

Whenever mummies are mentioned, our imaginations stray to the dusty tombs and gilded relics of ancient Egyptian burial sites. With their eerily lifelike repose, the preserved bodies of ancient Pharaohs like Hatshepsut and Tutankhamen stir our imaginations and stoke our interest in people and cultures which have long since passed away.

But the Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones to mummify their dead. As it happens, mummies dating back to the Bronze Age – between 4,200 and 2,700 years ago – have also been discovered in Britain. But until recently, we knew very little about how mummification was practised by ancient British societies, or to what extent. I devoted my PhD to finding out how peat bogs and bacteria affect the body after death, and helped to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Britain’s Bronze Age mummies.

I first learnt that mummification may have been practised in Britain back in 2008, while a student at the University of Sheffield. Mike Parker Pearson gave a lecture on the evidence for mummification, based on skeletons he’d excavated at the site of Cladh Hallan on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Mummy bundles

Several lines of evidence came together to suggest, rather controversially, that these skeletons had once been purposefully mummified. The tightly-flexed positions of skeletons were like Peruvian mummy bundles, and two teeth, part of the wrist and the knee of one of the Cladh Hallan skeletons, had been removed long after they had died, which suggested that the bodies had been curated for an extended length of time.

A mummified Peruvian male, who was buried in a bundle.
Wellcome Images/Wikimedia, CC BY

The radiocarbon dates from one of the skeletons were older than the dates obtained from the sediments at the burial sites. This suggested that the bodies may have been buried centuries after they had died. A thorough physical examination, together with DNA analysis, showed that both skeletons had actually been constructed from the mummified parts of several individuals.

Of course, based on this evidence alone, it was possible that these mummies were outliers. Mummification could well have been a fringe practice, carried out by people living on the peripheries of Britain’s Bronze Age societies.

The problem is that the same evidence from Cladh Hallan might not necessarily be found at all sites where mummification was practised. Radiocarbon dates would not always have the precision needed to identify significant delays between a person’s death and their burial. And there was no guarantee that the extensive meddling with mummified body parts identified at Cladh Hallan was practised elsewhere.

So, it was my challenge to identify whether remains from other sites might once have been mummies, too. And I was going to have to get my hands dirty.

Microscopic death tunnels

After we die, our gut bacteria circulate around our body through our blood vessels and begin to decompose our soft tissues. These bacteria also get into our bones and begin to eat away at the proteins, producing microscopic tunnels. Most of the bones from bodies that have been buried in the ground soon after death are filled with these tunnels, because the skeleton is essentially trapped in an enclosed environment with destructive bacteria.

Little or no tunnelling was observed within the skeletons from Cladh Hallan, suggesting that their putrefaction had been interrupted. Methods of mummification usually involve killing or removing gut bacteria soon after a person dies, in order to prevent this process. So studying the extent of bacterial attack inside bones was potentially a new way of identifying skeletons which had previously been mummies.

Bacterial tunnelling in a femur from Cladh Hallan.
Tom Booth, Author provided

To test this theory, I examined the bone microstructure of two bona fide mummies. Both skeletons showed little or no bacterial attack, confirming that this pattern was consistent with mummification.

I then looked at bacterial tunnelling in the bones of over 300 British archaeological skeletons dating to various periods. As expected, almost all bones from most periods were filled with bacterial tunnels. But around half of the samples that dated back to the Bronze Age showed little or no sign of bacterial tunnelling.

The Bronze Age skeletons which bore this signature came from sites located all over Britain, stretching from north-west Scotland to south-east England. This was the first evidence that mummification was practised all over Bronze Age Britain.

Burned or buried?

Some of these skeletons even hinted at the processes that Bronze Age people may have used to mummify their dead. The Cladh Hallan bones looked like they had been eroded by acid. Yet they were buried in alkaline shell sand. The nearest acidic environments to Cladh Hallan during the Bronze Age would have been a series of peat bogs – so, these bodies were probably preserved by being buried in a peat bog for a few months.

In contrast, Bronze Age mummies from Kent were discoloured in a way which suggested that they had been burnt. So they may have been preserved by being smoked over a fire.

It is impossible to say for sure exactly why Bronze Age Britons mummified some of their dead. The evidence suggests that Bronze Age people kept their mummies above ground for a number of years, or even decades: quite the opposite to the practices of Ancient Egypt, where mummified bodies were locked away in a tomb.

Both ancient and present societies which keep their mummified dead close tend to view them as being alive, in some sense. In some ancient cultures – like the Aztecs – the bodies were used to communicate with ancestors in the afterlife. Even today, human remains are innately powerful objects, which can be leveraged for political or social purposes – one modern example is Lenin’s mummified remains.

We might even reasonably guess that Bronze Age people used the mummies of their ancestors to exert rights over land, resources and power. The next step will be to examine whether mummification was practised even further afield – perhaps in mainland Europe.

The Conversation

Tom Booth, Wellcome Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Natural History Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Mummies have had a bad wrap – it’s time for a reassessment


Caroline Tully, University of Melbourne

As far as crowd-pleasers go, it’s hard to beat mummies. When Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs opened at the Melbourne Museum in 2011, it broke all previous records for touring exhibitions in Australia, attracting more than 800,000 visitors over its run and 10,192 visitors on a single day in May.

Yet the popularity of Egyptian mummies belies the fact that displaying human remains can be highly controversial, with ongoing ethical debates around their display.

Last month, a new exhibition titled Mummymania opened at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne. Featuring traditional Egyptian funerary objects such as amulets, figurines, offering vessels, bandages, and a decorated coffin, the exhibition also features actual mummified human remains.

As such, it offers an opportunity to reconsider how museum spaces exhibit and facilitate respectful engagement with the dead. It also offers a chance to reflect on the more recent history of the mummy – its role in scientific investigations into ancient disease and medicine, and its place in popular culture.

A recent history of the mummy

Since the 1970s, indigenous groups have rightfully claimed the return of ancestral human remains held in museum collections. Ancient Egyptian mummies have no living claimants, however, and are part of a long tradition of unearthing and display that forms part of the history of archaeology and the ongoing public fascination with ancient Egypt.

Interest in Egyptian mummies by Europeans can be traced back to the 5th century BC and the Greek historian Herodotus who provided one of the first accounts of the mummification process.

Throughout the following centuries mummies were plundered for jewellery and amulets; ground up and used as medicines; and even as a pigment base for paint.

Mummymania installation view.
Jodie Hutchinson

The dark resinous coating applied to mummies as part of the embalming process was mistakenly believed to be bitumen (Persian “mummia”) which was used as a medicine in Greece and the Near East.

Egyptian mummies were harvested for the dried resin as well as for their dried flesh. By the 16th century mummy had become a highly-prized drug exported to Western Europe where it was ground up, applied to wounds, and swallowed.

As well as being used as medicine, by the 18th century Egyptian mummies had become the focus of the medical community as scientific specimens. Mummies were dissected by doctors at private homes in front of audiences of medical practitioners and curious spectators.

Fragments of the mummy’s flesh, bandages, and accompanying artefacts were passed among the audience to be touched, smelt and tasted.

During the 19th century mummy unwrapping events moved to more professional locations such as medical and military museums, hospital operating theatres, laboratories, pharmacies, and respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Institution.

These popular, spectacular events attracted a paying audience made up of academics and the interested public. Melbourne had its own mummy unwrapping in 1893 when a female mummy was unwrapped in the concert hall in the Royal Exhibition Building in front of a crowd of 700 people, mostly women.

Popular culture & the mummy

Egyptian mummies were also used in art; pulverised mummies formed the basis of Caput Mortuum, also known as Mummy Brown, a rich brown pigment used in paintings from the 16th up until the 20th century. Mummy Brown featured in paintings by artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Edward Burne-Jones among others.

When Burne-Jones discovered that the pigment really did contain ground up mummy he ceremoniously buried his tube of paint in the garden. Despite its widespread use, Mummy Brown eventually fell out of favour through a combination of distaste regarding its origins and technical problems such as its tendency to crack.

Mummymania installation view.
Jodie Hutchinson

The mummy even featured in 19th-century fiction where it was portrayed as a gentle, even romantic character up until the publication in 1892 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Lot No. 249.

In this story a mummy is brought back to life by an Oxford college student through the use of ancient Egyptian magic and sent to attack all the people the student has a grudge against.

The story marked a turning point in the representation of the mummy who from that time on would be depicted as a frightening reanimated corpse. By the 20th century ancient Egyptian mummies were definite villains, sinister, predatory figures featuring in pulp magazines dedicated to fantasy, science fiction, mystery and the occult, as well as in film.

Universal Studio’s The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff, is the classic mummy horror movie. In this film Imhotep, an Egyptian priest who had been buried alive for attempting to resurrect his beloved princess, is accidentally revived when an archaeologist reads from the life-giving Scroll of Thoth. The mummy then stalks a beautiful young woman he believes is his lost love reincarnated.

Archaeologists excavating an Egyptian tomb are terrorised by a mummy in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), and in a sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), the mummy reappears at the archaeologists’ home in New England. More recently Universal made The Mummy (1999), followed by The Mummy Returns (2001), both of which are based on the original premise of the 1932 movie.

But, of course, mummies are not fictional movie creations. They’re real, and still very much with us, as exhibitions such as the current one remind us.

Mummymania, at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, runs until April 17, 2016. Details here.

The Conversation

Caroline Tully, Doctoral Candidate Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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