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11 April 2011
Scientists trace violent death of Iron Age man

An Iron Age man whose skull and brain was unearthed during excavations at the University of York was the victim of a gruesome ritual killing, according to new research. Fractures and marks on the bones suggest the man, aged between 26 and 45 years, died most probably from hanging, after which his head was carefully cut off and buried on its own.
     Archaeologists from York Archaeological Trust discovered the solitary skull face-down in one of a series of Iron Age pits in 2008, during a exploratory dig before building work on the campus expansion at Heslington East, in the northeast of England. The scientists found brain material in the skull, dating back about 2500 years - making it one the oldest surviving brains in Europe.
     Samples of brain material had a matched DNA sequences found only in a few individuals from Tuscany and the Near East. Carbon dating suggests the remains date from between 673-482 BCE.
     A multi-disciplinary team of scientists was assembled to attempt to establish how the man's brain could have survived when all the other soft tissue had decayed leaving only the bone. The team is also investigating details of the man's death and burial. The research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
     Dr Sonia O'Connor of the University of Bradford (UK), and the team's head, said: "It is rare to be able to suggest the cause of death for skeletonised human remains of archaeological origin. The preservation of the brain in otherwise skeletonised remains is even more astonishing but not unique."

Edited from the University of York (28 March 2011), The Press (29 March 2011)

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