'Mummies' found at Cladh Hallan
Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday March 16, 2003
Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of two embalmed humans, providing the first proof that ancient Britons made mummies of their kings and queens. The bodies - a man and a woman - predate the pharaoh Tutankhamen, who was mummified and buried 3,200 years ago.
The discovery at Cladh Hallan, a remote Bronze Age site in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, makes the couple - a man and a woman - the oldest mummies found anywhere in Europe. It is believed the male is around 3,500 years old, the female a couple of centuries younger.
'These are the only prehistoric mummies found in this country,' said project leader Dr Mike Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University. 'We have some from historic times - the body of Edward I was wrapped in cloth. But we have never found an example of the kind of thing that went on in ancient Egypt till now.'
Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, however, the Cladh Hallan mummies had to survive, after embalming, in extremely wet conditions. Hebridean weather in the Bronze Age was as grim as it is today. As a result, the couple's wrappings long ago disintegrated. Yet Dr Pearson and his team are convinced the pair must have been swathed in bandages.
'We found them with their knees around the chests and their thighs and calves absolutely parallel. There is no way that could have been done unless they had been very tightly bandaged or tied up with cords or straps of leather,' added Pearson. 'Over the millennia, the cloth disintegrated.'
The team found evidence that the people of South Uist went to extraordinary pains to preserve the bodies of the Cladh Hallan couple. Although the pair were found buried in the foundations of two Bronze Age dwellings called roundhouses, they had not been put in the earth immediately after death.
The state of their bodies indicates they had been kept above ground for several hundred years - at least 500 years, in the case of the male mummy. 'Something must have been done to preserve their flesh before it was wrapped up,' said Pearson.
'We narrowed this down to four options: the pair were left out to dry in the wind; they were slowly dried over a peat fire; they were pickled in salt, or they were dipped in a peat bog for a while.
'To find out which, we studied mineral deposits on their bones which showed that both bodies had been immersed in peaty water for a considerable time - possibly a year before they were bandaged up.'
After that, it appears the couple were put on display or kept in a sacred, warm, dry place - otherwise they would have disintegrated. Just why this couple, who had lived a couple of centuries apart, were venerated in this rather grisly way is still a mystery, however.
'It could be a form of ancestor worship, or the local people could have preserved them because they were great leaders or shamans whose powers they hoped to tap into after death,' said Pearson.
Bronze Age funereal customs in South Uist changed for some reason around 3,000 years ago. The couple were taken from their place of display and buried in the foundations of one of the roundhouses.
'There is something touching about still taking such care about people who had died centuries earlier, said Pearson. 'It indicates a considerable continuity to the local culture.'
· The Mummies of Cladh Hallan will be shown on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday.
Posted by Rhiannon
17th March 2003ce
Edited 30th August 2007ce