Researchers working in Scotland have discovered that two human skeletons mummified in bogs on the island of South Uist are actually cobbled together from six different people, according to a report from National Geographic. The scientists studying the remains are still unsure what the purpose of creating these composite mummies was. These findings are reported in a paper co-authored by Terry Brown, professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester.
The mummies, one male and one female, were discovered below 11th century houses at the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan. The bodies were found more than a decade ago, however, the finding was just made public. The researchers believe that the mummies came from bodies which were originally mummified around 3,000 years ago. Bogs host a very acidic and oxygen-deprived environment, which slows down decomposition. After remaining in the bog just long enough to become mummified, the mummies were removed. Between 300 and 600 years later, the mummies were reburied in soil. The burial in the peat bog preserved the body’s tissues, but these later degraded when the bodies were buried in the ground.
Adding to the mystery, the scientists found that the bodies had first been buried in a peat bog, then moved to their final resting place and assembled into a fetal position. It remains unclear exactly why the corpses were moved, but further studies could shed light.
Researchers noticed that, although the bones of the skeletons are all articulated as they would be in life, some of the bones did not seem to match. DNA sampling revealed that the female skeleton was composed bones collected from different, unrelated individuals. According to dating tests, the bones of the three individuals making up the composite female skeleton all date from the same age, while the bones of the three individuals making up the male are separated by hundreds of years.
Dr. Brown notes that there is still no clear reason why the mummies are cobbled together from different bodies. In the paper, the authors write, “The presence of two composite skeletons at Cladh Hallan indicates that the merging of identities may have been a deliberate act, perhaps designed to amalgamate different ancestries into a single lineage.”
Dr. Brown points out that other cultures have a practice of creating mummies for symbolic reasons, “It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it’s not a single identity, but it’s representing something.” He also says the the reason may just be practical, from an ancient point of view. “Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on.”
Dr. Brown hopes to look for evidence that other bog mummies may also share this composite construction, and to find clues about the rituals surrounding the practice.
That said, scientists are already saying that the finding could change our understanding of how the dead were treated in earlier times.
“Altogether, these results have completely changed our ideas about treatment of the dead in prehistoric Britain,” said Michael Parker-Pearson of the University of Sheffield. “Other archaeologists are now identifying similar examples now that the breakthrough has been made — beforehand, it was just unthinkable.”