Reading about the bog bodies recently excavated in Ireland this week brought to mind the two bog mummies unearthed off the coast of Scotland in 2001. The mummies were discovered under the remains of Bronze Age roundhouses at Cladh Hallan.
The University of Sheffield archaeological team who excavated this site, lead by Dr. Michael Parker Pearson, spent a number of months carefully examining the bones, radio carbon dating, conducting isotope analysis, and DNA testing the remains and of other materials from the site. These tests revealed that each bog mummy was made up of skeletal parts from many different people.
The male died about 1,600 BC, and was buried under Cladh Hallan around six centuries later. The bones of the neck (cervical vertebrae) in this mummy show signs of arthritis. The mandible (jaw bone) had all of its teeth and the upper jaw had none, but the condition of the teeth on the mandible showed they had contact with teeth on the maxilla (upper jaw) – a clue that these bones may have come from different individuals. The isotopic dating indicated that the male mummy is made from several people who died a few hundred years apart.
The female died about 1,300 BC, and was buried under one of the roundhouse buildings at Cladh Hallan about 300 years later. The DNA tests on the female mummy showed she was also a composite of different bodies. The researchers took DNA from her skull, lower jaw, right upper arm and right thighbone. This testing showed that her jaw, arm bone and thighbone all came from different people, none of which shared a mother or showed any relation, but date to about the same time.
The archaeologists working on this project believed that both bodies were immersed in the bog just long enough to preserve the soft tissue, and removed right before the bones were damaged. Peat bogs are highly-acidic, low-oxygen environments. These environments slow down decomposition of skin and organs, so the skin and connective tissues are preserved, but high-acidic environment eats at bone. So the longer the bones are stored in a peat bog, the more they disintegrate. The body would only need to be in the bog for about 6 to 18 months, with only the outer few millimeters of bone decaying. Scientific analyses revealed that just the outer 2mm of the bone had been eaten away by the bog, reinforcing the argument that this is what the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan did to these remains. After the process was finished, the mummies were reburied under the Cladh Hallan buildings, where the skin and muscle started to decompose.
Researchers who either worked on or read about these “Franken mummies” created by the bog believe they served a ritual and/or functional purpose. The mixing of skeletal remains of different families into one body may have been a way to symbolically consolidate them into a single lineage. Creating composite mummies may have been a Bronze Age technique for families to share the remains of different ancestors in different locations (acting as sort of an ossuary or a charnel house). The Sheffield archaeology team has also argued that ancient land rights depended on ancestral claims, so perhaps having the different ancestors bundled together in one flesh was a sort of legal document, giving descendants access to land and resources.
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