Bronze Age Britons Mummified the Dead: Smoked over Fires, Preserved in Bogs
Mummification may have been more common in Bronze Age Britain than previously believed, and the ancient Britons may have purposefully mummified their dead with unknown funerary rituals—but why and how still eludes archaeologists.
According to science news site Phys.org, researchers studying Bronze Age skeletons from various sites across the UK found that mummification may have been a wide-spread funerary practice in ancient Britain.
A team comprised of researchers from University of Sheffield, University of Manchester and University College London, compared 301 skeletal remains from prehistoric Europe with preserved mummies from northern Yemen and Ireland.
Dr. Thomas Booth, bioarchaeologist of the Department of Earth Sciences at London's Natural History Museum said that microscopic bone studies indicated that some bodies buried at sites throughout Britain were intentionally mummified between 4,200 and 2,750 years ago, reports ScienceNews magazine.
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The Bocksten Man is the remains of an ancient male body found in a bog in Sweden. His remains were partially preserved in a bog. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Gut bacteria was the key to unlocking which bodies had been intentionally preserved, and which were simply buried at death to decompose naturally.
“After you die and your cells start to break down, the kind of internal gates that keep your bacteria within their locales break down as well,” Booth told LiveScience.
"Your bacteria — they have no loyalty. They start to attack your soft tissues in the first few hours after death,” he said.
Microscopic tunnels and holes are created in the bones by the bacteria—a process called bacterial bioerosion. If a body has been purposefully mummified with either man-made methods or through natural preservation (such as lying in a peat bog, or dying in icy or arid conditions), the bones tend to have few to no discernable holes.
Ötzi the Iceman, a man from about 3300 BC, famously a naturally preserved body, was found in a glacier in the Alps. (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Fair Use )
The team’s work has been detailed this week in the archaeology journal, Antiquity. It reveals that bones from 16 out of 34 Bronze Age Britons had little to no bacterial damage. This strongly suggests that either artificial or natural preservation blocked rapid decomposition of the flesh.
Making Mummies in the Bronze Age
This evidence says to researchers the ancient Britons purposefully mummified their dead, although without the elaborate rituals and chemicals of the ancient Egyptians. Instead of using plant resins or wrappings, it’s thought the Britons may have smoked dead bodies over a fire, or brined them in peat bogs. If bodies were mummified or preserved intentionally in other ways in prehistoric times, the wet climate conditions of Britain would have long ago destroyed evidence of the burials.
Scientists from Zurich, Switzerland demonstrated this earlier this year as they attempted to mummify human legs from a recently deceased donor using both Ancient Egyptian and natural mummification methods. The naturally mummified leg succumbed to decomposition after a single week in the cool and damp Zurich lab and without the traditional preservative salts and arid conditions of Egypt.
According to Phys.org, Dr. Booth noted, “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.
“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.”
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Cultural Motivations Remain Mysterious
It has not yet been determined why the prehistoric Britons might have practiced mummification of their dead. Intentional mummification is widespread in societies around the world, and can be seen in the artifacts and remains of various ancient cultures.
Science magazine Smithsonian writes, “Inca, for instance, mummified their rulers to allow them to remain at their posts, while some Buddhist monks may even self-mummify to achieve the ultimate state of enlightenment . But with a lack of associated burial artifacts, it's unclear what would have motivated Bronze Age Britons to mummify their dead.”