Our attitudes towards death and the treatment of physical remains go through cyclical changes over the centuries. Some eras endorsed burials, others cremations, but few cultures ever returned to the ancient practice of mummification.
When one thinks about the deliberate preservation of human bodies, our minds instantly fix upon the Pharaohs of Egypt. This time-consuming and gruesome method of preparing a body for the presumed afterlife was reserved for the most important in society. We know from their coffin or pyramid texts that it was directly related to their belief system. The wealthier and higher status the deceased was in life, the grander the ritual and grave goods in death.
Mumification of remains can occur naturally as well as deliberately. Bodies preserved in peat bogs, for example, are exposed to fewer microorganisms that promote decay, since they tend to be acidic and lacking in oxygen. One of the most famous examples is the Tolland Man, from a peat bog in Denmark. Carbon dating places his death at around 280BCE, or the Early Iron Age. The body was preserved well enough to determine that he died from asphyxiation related to being hung.
There was also, Otzi the Iceman, whose body was literally freeze-dried in the Tyrolean Mountains around 3370-3100BCE.
It’s those that were preserved intentionally, which tell us most about the cultures surrounding death and mortal remains. While the most notable of these lies with the ancient Egyptians, it might surprise you to know that bodies were sometimes mummified in Bronze Age Britain too. Archaeological discoveries have uncovered preserved human remains on the Scottish island of South Uist. What is most puzzling, is that the two skeletons are composites of different body parts from several people.
A study by Thomas J. Booth, Andrew T. Chamberlain, and Mike Parker Pearson, published by Cambridge University Press in 2015, focused on the remains of the mummies found at Cladh Hallan. They were discovered in layers of earth beneath that of Late Bronze Age roundhouses. Through the use of ancient DNA analysis techniques, they were able to determine that the body parts had been intentionally preserved and reconstructed to form two human figures.
Closer inspection of the skeletons revealed that some of the disarticulated limbs, had been subjected to greater, or lesser degrees of putrefaction, before the microbe action could be arrested. The reasoning for creating such a Frankenstein-like monster will always be a mystery, but it does indicate that Bronze Age people had a firm grasp of decay rates and how to prevent further rot.
These ancient inhabitants of a remote British location, realised that the removal of internal organs slowed down the process of biodegradation, even though it was unlikely that they were aware of the cause. Today, it is widely accepted that our own gut bacteria kicks off the first stages of putrefaction (Child, 1995, Bell et al, 1996, White and Booth,2014).
This knowledge may also have spurred Bronze Age people on to use other techniques to prevent decay, such as excarnation (Rodriguez and Bass 1983, White and Booth,2014), where bodies are left for scavengers to pick the bones clean, or manual defleshing (Nielsen-Marsh et all, 2007), both of which prevents the gut microbes from reaching the skeletal remains. Deliberate butchery marks in the bones prove the techniques used to remove soft tissues.
Remains at Cladh Hallan are not unique in Britain. At least 24 British sites have shown to contain mummified bodies, whether in part or as a whole. In some instances, little if any of the soft tissues remained. These sites are dated to the Early and Late Bronze Age, indicating that mummification was a long-lived mortuary practice.
The bones, teeth and skulls of bodies found in Neat’s Court in Kent (Morley et al, 2010), displayed cracks and discolouration consistent with prolonged exposure to low level heat (Deter and Barrett, 2009), indicating that the deceased was most probably smoke dried over fires.
We can only guess to the reasons why our ancestors felt the need to keep the physical remains of their family and friends close by or what religious significance was associated with those chosen for preservation. It is possible to relate some current funerary practices and draw rudimentary suppositions as to their reasoning.
Take cremation, for example. There are some who take comfort in spreading the ashes of a loved one in a favoured place in the hope that their presumed spirit will live on in another invisible world, be it a notion of heaven or a different dimension. Others pay for lavish crypts or tombs to inter their dead, many of which are built on the grounds of ancient family estates.
In the Early to Mid-Bronze Age, cairns at the centre of stone circles held human remains, as did quoits or cromlechs on the high tors of Dartmoor in South West England. Then there are the massive barrows containing piles of sorted bones, dotted right across the country. Were these plots reserved for the worthiest or used to demarcate tribal lands? Could it be that they too believed in wandering spirits that could watch over the living and their territories simply by placing their earthly remains in a particular spot?
Some studies appear to back this assumption with hard data. In Professor Joanna Brück’s article. “A Place for the Dead: The Role of Human Remains in Late Bronze Age Britain”, she sets out possible reasons for the deposition of certain remains. Using statistical analysis, Brück highlights the fact that a disproportionate number of skulls and skull fragments were discovered in strategic places within Late Bronze Age archaeological sites. Many, such as the enclosure at Pimperne Down in Dorset, had human skulls deliberately placed at the entrance point to the ramparts.
Brück suggests that unlike modern humans, the remains of ancestors had intrinsic value to Bronze Age people, providing them with a way of marking territorial boundaries, reinforcing societal structures or even a ritualistic method of summoning the protection of their dead relatives via supernatural means.
Interestingly, some disarticulated bones were discovered at the edges of midden piles. Brück argues that this find could represent a difference in how our ancestors viewed discarded waste. She claims that it’s possible that middens could have been seen as part of the cycle of life. From death springs life, including the rotting kitchen waste, manure and flesh providing nourishment for future crops.
Might there be a simpler explanation for finding some skeletons among the rubbish? Could it possibly be that those of a low status within the community, such as slaves taken from rival tribes, were unworthy of a ritual send off? The skull of a lauded warrior might have provided protection over the tribe. That would account for the fragments of skulls and long bones found with intricate carvings to fashion them into pipes or necklaces, worn as a talisman (Archaeology Magazine, October 2020).
What strikes me the most is the range of funerary practices used during the Bronze Age in Britain. It seems that our ancestors were quite used to handling their dead and even scattering their remains far and wide. This was a world in which the divisions between life and death were blurred much more than the defined boundaries we are used to today.
Having said that, I’ve seen numerous adverts of late from companies offering to turn your dear departed relative’s ashes into manufactured diamonds so that you can wear your granny on a pendant around your neck. I’ve even noticed places doing the same service for deceased pets.
It makes me wonder whether out squeamishness over death will subside once again, allowing even more bizarre rituals to evolve as part of our ongoing journey into a new era.