A new study by the University of Sheffield has found new evidence that mummification may have been more widespread in Bronze Age Britain than previously realized. The damp climate is not conducive to the preservation of soft tissues, so unless a body was preserved in an aerobic environment like a peat bog, trying to figure out if a skeletonized body was once mummified is a challenge. Earlier studies have found a key difference between the bones of bodies that were mummified and those that never were: the bacteria that cause decomposition of soft tissues also degrade bone, gnawing on the proteins in the skeleton creating microscopic tunnels like termites in wood. The bones of mummified bodies show little or no sign of this kind of damage from putrefactive bacteria.
The study undertook to develop a methodology that would be able to distinguish mummified remains when only bones have survived. The research team did a microscopic analysis of the bones (mostly femurs) of 301 individuals from 25 archaeological sites in the UK. Thirty-four of the 301 dated to the Bronze Age. The samples were compared to a mummy from Yemen and one found in an Irish peat bog. Half of them had tell-tale indicators of putrefactive erosion; 16 of them had either no damage or very little.
Their examinations revealed that both the Yemeni and Irish mummies showed limited levels of bacterial bioerosion within the bone and therefore established that the skeletons found in the Outer Hebrides as well as other sites across Britain display levels of preservation that are consistent with mummification.
The research team also found that the preservation of Bronze Age skeletons at various sites throughout the UK is different to the preservation of bones dating to all other prehistoric and historic periods, which are generally consistent with natural decomposition. Furthermore, the Sheffield-led researchers also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead.
[Study lead researcher] Dr Booth added, “Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.”
This is the first study to use microscopic analysis to identify funerary practices in the bone itself, and it opens up a world of possibilities in understanding rituals that could previously only be discovered from rare soft tissue survivals.
“The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period.”
The research also demonstrates that funerary rituals that we may now regard as exotic, novel and even bizarre were practised commonly for hundreds of years by our predecessors.
Researchers hope the new technology can be used to identify cultures that mummified their dead not just in the UK but in Europe as well.