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4 October 2015
Bronze Age Britons mummified their dead

Ancient Britons may have intentionally mummified some of their dead during the Bronze Age (c. 2500 - 800 BCE), according to archaeologists at the University of Sheffield. The study is the first to provide indications that mummification may have been a widespread funerary practice in Britain.
     Working with colleagues from the University of Manchester and University College London, Dr Tom Booth analyzed skeletons at several Bronze Age burial sites across the UK. The team found that the remains of some ancient Britons are consistent with a prehistoric mummy from northern Yemen and a partially mummified body recovered from a sphagnum peat bog in County Roscommon, Ireland.
     Archaeologists widely agree that the damp British climate is not favorable to organic materials and all prehistoric mummified bodies that may be located in the UK will have lost their preserved tissue if buried outside of a preservative environment such as a bog.
     "To help address this," said Dr Booth, "Our team has found that by using microscopic bone analysis archaeologists can determine whether a skeleton has been previously mummified even when it is buried in an environment that isn't favorable to mummified remains. We know from previous research that bones from bodies that have decomposed naturally are usually severely degraded by putrefactive bacteria, whereas mummified bones demonstrate immaculate levels of histological preservation and are not affected by putrefactive bio-erosion."
     The researchers did a microscopic analysis on the bones of 301 people, retrieved from 25 European archaeological sites. In most cases, they looked at the femur, a long bone in the leg, Booth said. Of these, 34 individuals were from the Bronze Age. More than half of the samples showed evidence that the person had been buried immediately, but 16 had "excellent bone preservation," compared with mummies from Ireland and Yemen, indicating that these Bronze Age people were mummified after death, the researchers wrote.
     The research team also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead. Dr Booth added, "Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.
     The study is the first time researchers have used this type of analysis to identify specific funerary treatments in archaeological bones, he said. It also reminds other scientists that "even if you don't have preserved soft tissue at a site, it doesn't mean that people weren't mummifying at the site," Booth said.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (30 September 2015), CBS News (2 October 2015)

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