Bronze-Age Brits May Have Mummified Their Dead

Geoff Morley / University of Sheffield
Geoff Morley / University of Sheffield / Geoff Morley / University of Sheffield

We generally associate mummies with ancient Egypt. In fact, mummified bodies have been found all over the world. People in what are now the U.S., Japan, and Ireland regularly mummified their dead, as did people in Peru, Italy, Australia, Libya, and China, to name a few. Now, it seems, we'll be adding the United Kingdom to that list. A recent examination of Bronze Age skeletons from all over the UK found signs that the bodies had been intentionally preserved. 

The bodies in question no longer look like mummies to the naked eye; as a result, earlier studies had dismissed the possibility of mummification. But a new team, armed with a new method, took a closer look at the bones, and what they found was amazing.

Image Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Using microscopic bone analysis, the researchers looked at the amount of bacterial damage on the skeletons; bones that decompose naturally show severe bioerosion from bacteria, while preserved bodies show little. They compared the amount of damage to that seen on known mummies from Ireland and Yemen. The amount of bioerosion matched, indicating that the UK bodies had been deliberately preserved.

The research team, led by Sheffield University's Tom Booth, concluded that the practice likely began around 2400 BCE—which means that these early Britons were mummifying their dead around the same time as the Egyptians and the Chinchorro people of Chile were mummifying theirs.

Each culture had its own preservation technique. The Egyptians embalmed their dead over the course of several months, then wrapped the bodies in bandages before laying them to rest in sarcophagi. The Chinchorro people “rebuilt” their dead through a painstaking process involving straw, paste, skin, and hair. The Britons, it seems, had at least two methods. 

Image Credit: Martin Green

The 16 bodies, male and female, were collected from sites all over the country, and many of them seem to have been left intentionally in peat bogs. The cold, acidic bogs were a favorite corpse-dumping ground in ancient Britain, but Booth and his team are the first to suggest the preservation-by-peat was intentional. This theory was bolstered by signs of heat treatment on two of the other bodies, which looked as though they had been smoked over a fire.

These aren't the first mummies found in the British Isles. Four bizarre "jigsaw" mummies, assembled from parts of different people, were discovered on the Scottish island of South Uist in 2001. But the new research is the first evidence that mummification may have been common practice throughout Bronze Age Britain.

“It’s possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient civilizations that mummified their dead,” Booth said this week in a press statement. He and his team plan to use their new method to look at another 30 skeletons from England, Scotland, and Wales.

A report of the findings was published this week in the journal Antiquity.