Discovery at Cladh Hallan

Cladh Hallan is an archeological site on the island of South Uist in Scotland. The site has been the subject of archeological study since the 1980’s, as it contains settlements dating to 2000 BC. These settlements were occupied up until the end of the Viking period, around AD 1300.

In 2001, a team was busy digging at the prehistoric site. While excavating beneath the remnants of 11th-century houses that were built atop the Bronze Age village, the team discovered four skeletons. Two of the skeletons in particular were intriguing to the team. The first, a female, had died around 1300 BC; the second, a male, had died over three hundred years earlier, around 1600 BC.

The two skeletons were buried in the fetal position, and were remarkably preserved for their age. Initially, the discoverers did not fully understand the importance of their discovery. They knew that the skeletons were unusual in that they were flexed to an extreme degree, similar to mummies discovered in Peru. The perplexing thing was that the Cladh Hallan skeletons were just that, skeletons. Normally a mummy would have tissue attached to the bones but these skeletons had none.

A Piece to the Puzzle

bronze_age_settlement_cladh_hallan

The remains of the Bronze Age settlement at Cladh Hallan.

After several month of testing, scientists discovered a piece of information that helped solve the mystery. Testing revealed that the two skeletons were indeed mummies. The male skeleton had been buried almost 600 years after death, and the female skeleton had waited over 300 years until it was interred.

At first, this discovery only complicated the situation further. How had bodies left unburied for 600 and 300 years not completely decomposed? And even if they had been sheltered from the elements, skeletons fall apart into a pile of bones no matter what. So how had these two skeletons been so perfectly preserved as a whole?

“Frankenstein” Mummies

Things became even more complicated when DNA testing revealed that the skeletons were not whole skeletons. Well, they were ‘complete’ skeletons, but they were composed of body parts from several different people. ‘Frankenstein’ skeletons, if you will.

The female body was found to be composed from several different people, all of whom had died in the same relative period. The male body, however, was composed of several different people who had died several hundred years apart. How were these ‘Frankenstein’ mummies created? And even more so, why?

Peat Bog Preservation

The two mummies are the oldest mummies to have been discovered in Britain.

The two mummies are the oldest mummies to have been discovered in Britain.

In short, the two skeletons were temporarily buried in a peat bog directly after their death. Bogs have long been known to preserve bodies after death and the best explanation for the Cladh Hallan mummies is that they were preserved in this way. Archaeologists surmise that the ancient Britons probably buried the bodies in a peat bog for just long enough to preserve them. The bodies were then removed before acid began to destroy the bones, and it is guesswork as to why they were left unburied for several hundred years.

Theories

There are several different theories as to why the ancient inhabitants of Cladh Hallan would go to the trouble of assembling their own mummies. Most archaeologists believe that the mummies were left unburied for several hundred years because they served some type of religious function in the village. The inhabitants of ancient Briton are believed to have held a high reverence for their ancestors, so it is conceivable that the mummies served some type of religious function in connection with ancestor worship or reverence.

A more cynical theory suggests simply that it was practical approach to fixing a mummy that had lost its head. Regardless of the truth about why the ancient Britons assembled these patchwork mummies, it is an amazing glimpse into the history of Britain and the practices of its ancient inhabitants.


Further Reading

Mummification in Bronze Age Britain

“Frankenstein” Bog Mummies Discovered in Scotland