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Britain's oldest brain

Decapitated Skull Holds Remarkable Find - Oldest Preserved Brain in Britain

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Archaeologists stumbled upon a surprising find in 2009 when they uncovered a preserved brain in a skull, buried in an Iron Age pit in Yorkshire, England.  Known as the Heslington Brain, the find has continued to perplex experts; how did the spongy brain survive the decomposition that took the rest of the soft tissue remains?

The skull was examined by Rachell Cubitt, a Collection Projects Officer with the York Archaeological Trust, after it was excavated from the ancient pit in York. 

“I peered through the hole at the base of the skull to investigate. To my surprise saw a quantity of bright yellow spongy material. It was unlike anything I had seen before,” Cubitt said, according to news website Culture 24.

The skull is believed to have belonged to an individual, age 26 to 45, who had been decapitated in the sixth century B.C. It is thought that the head was removed from its body with a “small, sharp knife”. The jaw and two vertebrae were still attached to the skull.


Skull recovered from the Iron Age pit dig in Heslington, Yorkshire, in England.

Skull recovered from the Iron Age pit dig in Heslington, Yorkshire, in England. Credit: York Archaeological Trust

When researchers found the head buried in the wet, clay-rich environment of the pit, the skin, hair and flesh on the skull had decomposed. The brain had shrunk over time, and was loose within the skull cavity. The tissue had ultimately resisted decomposition, leaving astonished archaeologists with the oldest preserved human brain in Britain.

Experts are still unsure why the brain survived all this time in such relatively good condition, however it is suspected the quick severing of the head from the body may have impeded the flow of bacteria which stems from the gut, and spreads outwards after death. It is thought this natural bacteria did not get a chance to contaminate the head, and this, combined with the oxygen-free pit environment, may have preserved the brain matter.

Any kind of soft tissue find is rare in archaeology, but some surprising examples have been uncovered, such as the discovery of 8,000-year-old preserved brain matter in Norway.

Norwegian archaeologists find 8,000-year-old skull.

Norwegian archaeologists find 8,000-year-old skull. Screen capture from NRK video.

In 2014, archaeologists made a rare discovery when they found an ancient skull believed to date back 8,000 years at a dig site in Stokke, southwest of Oslo. According to a news report in The Local, the skull was found to contain a grey, clay-like substance inside it, which is thought to be the preserved remains of the individual’s brain.

Other examples include the brain tissue found in the preserved body of an Incan child sacrificed 500 years ago. Her body was discovered at the top of an Andean mountain where the body swiftly froze, preserving the brain. Another ancient brain comes from 4,000-year-old remains in Turkey, which had been preserved following an earthquake which buried the individual, followed by a fire that consumed any oxygen in the rubble and boiled the brain in its own fluids.

Brain of Bronze Age Human Survives for 4000 Years.

Brain of Bronze Age Human Survives for 4000 Years. Credit: Halic University Istanbul

“The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable,” says Frank Rühli at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, on the brain found in Turkey.  Rühli has examined medieval brain tissue, and says that most archaeologists don't bother looking for the remains of brain tissue because they assume it is seldom preserved. “If you publish cases like this, people will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too.”

The discovery of these remains is significant, and certain cases might provide new insights into the living conditions of the ancients. The recovery of ancient brain specimens could also pave the way to the study of health in antiquity.

Featured Image: The surprising matter of Britain's oldest brain. Credit: York Archaeological Trust

By Liz Leafloor



Justbod's picture

I live in York and remember when this was first found. I don’t know if it will ever further our knowledge that much, but it is such a fascinating and evocative find.

Thanks for the article!

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Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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