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The Mysterious Case of Britain’s ‘Franken-mummies’

Posted on the 25 September 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
A Bronze-Age skeleton in Wessex, similar to that found in Cladh Hallan. Photo Credit: Flickr A Bronze-Age skeleton in Wessex, similar to that found in Cladh Hallan. Photo Credit: Flickr

The background

The mystery of the Bronze Age skeletons, found in Cladh Hallan, on the Outer Hebrides, in 2001, have been the focus of a ten year investigation. They were the first evidence that early Britons engaged in mummification, a practice that was thought to only exist in Egypt and South America.

The investigation has proved that early concerns about the intact condition and foetal positions of the two bodies were founded, as archaeologists reveal the gruesome reality that the bodies are composites: made up of six separate humans who died hundreds of years apart.

The first evidence of British mummification

When the two almost perfectly preserved, 3,000 year old bodies were uncovered in Cladh Hallan, they were the first evidence of British mummification. The Telegraph reported that “the mineral content of the bones suggests they were placed in an acidic peat bog, which helped to preserve them in a primitive form of mummification.” The Sydney Morning Herald talked up the importance of the find: “Before the discovery, mummification at that time in history was thought to have been restricted to Egypt and South America.”


Closer inspection and ground breaking new DNA technology have unearthed a far greater discovery than early mummification. The two bodies; believed to be one male and one female, were actually pieced together from body parts belonging to six separate humans. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London who led the research, told The Telegraph that “it looks like these individuals had been cut up and put back together to look like one person.” He said the composite bodies could have been the result of “misfortune or carelessness,” but suggested that “the merging of their identities may have been a deliberate act, perhaps designed to amalgamate different ancestries into a single lineage.”

Archaeologists discovered the gruesome truth after carbon-dating and testing for mitochondrial DNA (found only in women) proved the skeletons were made from chronologically and genetically diverse individuals. Pearson also told The Daily Mail that the mummies had not been buried straight after preservation: “I don’t believe these mummies were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world.”

Fascinating development

 The discovery has significant consequences for our understanding of Bronze Age ritual. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the discovery may indicate that Bronze Age families “shared their homes with the mummified remains of their dead ancestors before deliberately putting the bodies together to look like single corpses – possibly in an attempt to demonstrate the uniting of different families.”  As part of ancestral worship, these ‘franken-mummies’ may have been revered and asked for spiritual advice. Archaeoligical journalist David Keys emphasised  the importance of the find to the The Daily Mail: “The discovery of Britain’s first mummies should start to redefine key aspects of life and death in prehistoric Britain.”

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