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16 September 2007
Ancient scots mummified their dead

The ancient Egyptians were not the only ones to mummify their dead, according to a study in this month's Antiquity Journal that claims prehistoric Scottish people created mummies too. The researchers do not think the Egyptians influenced the Scots, but that mummification arose independently in the two regions.
     Initial evidence for Scottish mummies was announced in 2005, when archaeologists unearthed three preserved bodies — an adult female, an adult male and an infant — buried underneath two Bronze Age roundhouses in South Uist, Hebrides, at a site called Cladh Hallan. The bodies date to between 1300 and 1500 BCE. "Distinctive microscopic and chemical changes in the bones showed that the bodies had not been placed in the ground immediately after death, but had been subject to conditions that may have enhanced their preservation," said Andrew Chamberlain, who worked on both the 2005 and the more recent investigations.
     Analysis of a female mummy's remains, led by researcher Christie Cox, shows her knee was broken off prior to burial but long after her death. The scientists found the knee buried at another part of the site. The knee "adds to the evidence for manipulation of the body parts long after death," Chamberlain said, adding that the bones were dry before they were snapped apart. Microscopic and chemical analysis also determined the bodies were subject to an acidic environment that enhanced preservation.
     That finding, and the arrangement of the bones, suggests the dead individuals were first wrapped tightly and then immersed into a peat bog. The scientists believe the bodies were then removed and carefully buried under the roundhouses, where individuals resided. Arranged stones marked the graves, which surprisingly were located right inside the entrance to the house. This would be like homeowners today having small cemeteries in the entry halls of their homes. "The floor above the burials was kept clear of debris from craft activities, cooking, etc. so it seems that the occupants of the house were aware of the presence of the bodies buried under the floor," Chamberlain said. He believes that in Bronze Age Britain a transition occurred from "previous collective burial rites to a new burial rite in which individuals were placed under houses or within their own burial mounds."
     University of Reading archaeologist Richard Bradley points out Cladh Hallan is important, since it preserves all elements of prehistoric life, including death. Historic Scotland, a government agency, funded the research.

Source: Discovery News (14 September 2007)

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