Personal Interest - Mummification in Bronze Age Britain

Introduction

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. 
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 reasons why and the exact practises carried out still eludes archaeologists.

Practises

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. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death. 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 have demonstrated this 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. 
An investigations of human remains interred within and around a single monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset, UK. Took a synthetic approach by giving equal weight to taphonomy, archaeothanatology, histological analysis, scanning electron microscopy, micro-CT scanning, experimentation and contextual dating, a more nuanced picture has been revealed, where the dead were dealt with in ways that were both more complex and considerably more protracted than might otherwise be assumed. In particular, several lines of evidence point to practices aimed at the protracted curation of the dead as articulated bodies with at least some soft tissue persisting. This observation is of particular importance in light of previously published claims for ‘mummification’ in Bronze Age Britain. It suggests that such practices may have been both widespread and persistent over time.

Both the primary burial and one of the satellite burials show strong indications that the respective individuals were not deposited in their graves immediately after death but were curated for an extended period. The inconsistency between the pottery type interred with the primary burial and the radiocarbon dates obtained from the skeleton show that this individual is likely to have died between one and four centuries prior to being finally buried. If these remains had been found in a disarticulated state, this would simply imply the retention of the bones of a long dead ‘ancestor’. The degree of articulation in which the burial was encountered, however, can only be explained by the presence of at least some soft tissues (ligaments etc.) meaning that this individual was buried as an ‘intact’ body rather than a bundle of curated bones. In the case of the satellite burial, again this individual was neither deposited in the ground shortly after death, nor transferred to the grave as a collection of bones after the soft tissues had decomposed, but rather something in between. The absence of grave goods precludes the kind of comparison of differential dating evidence possible for primary burial, but the apparent treatment of the body implies something more than short-term retention of the remains.


Possible Reasons Why

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 artefacts and remains of various ancient cultures.

Some of these investigations and research even hinted at the processes that Bronze Age people may have used to mummify their own dead. The Cladh Hallan bones on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides 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 meaning, 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. 

Conclusion

I hope this post has been of some interest. It is an area of research which is slowly moving forward and for years while we knew of possible accidental or natural mummification in Britain we thought that deliberate mummification didn't happen. Until new evidence and research came along. What this shows that Bronze Age Britain was a far more complex place than we give it credit for even though it saw monuments like Stone Henge built during that time. If this has peaked your interest it is worth taking some time to read on the latest research regarding Bronze Britain in general and also how burial practises in Britain have changed over time as they give key snapshot into how society functions.


Sources

https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/bronze-age-britons-mummified-dead-smoked-over-fires-preserved-bogs-004047
http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/24362/1/Smith%20et%20al%20Canada%20Farm_FINAL%20Text.pdf

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