LONDON — Mummification seems to have been widely practiced throughout Britain in the Bronze Age, archaeologists from the University of Sheffield said in a study analysing skeletons at several burial sites across the UK.
The mummies of our ancestors may have been kept in homes and brought out as proof that a family had ancestral claim to land, archaeologists told the Guardian.The research will appear in the October issue of Antiquity, a review of world archaeology.
Britain’s notoriously damp climate is a far cry from Egypt’s, so the mummification was likely done by different means than the Egyptians used.
“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,” said Dr. Tom Booth, who is now based at the Department of Earth Sciences at London’s Natural History Museum. He and colleagues from the University of Manchester and University College London used a new technique to analyse whether a skeleton was mummified before it was buried in an environment unfavourable to mummified remains. The team looked at bone erosion of skeletons found at sites such as Kent and Cladh Hallan.
When bodies are is buried straight into graves, gut bacteria leak out and attack the bones, causing little tunnels to appear. Mummified bones are preserved, and these tunnels don’t appear. Partially mummified skeletons found in Ireland and Northern Yemen had almost pristine bones, and this prompted the scientists to examine bones more widely. The find tells us more about funeral rituals of the time — from 2200 BC to 700 BC.
“The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period,” Booth said.
And as technological changes in the Bronze Age brought about social change, the mummies could have helped consolidate social power for people. “Bringing out your dead ancestor who farmed the piece of land is better than producing a land deed,” he said.
The scientists hope that their method of microscopic bone analysis can be used to help identify more mummies around Bronze Age Europe.