Michael Parker-Pearson
The adult female skeleton from Cladh Hallan. This mummy's lower jaw, arm bone and thighbone all came from different people.
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updated 7/9/2012 2:05:28 PM ET 2012-07-09T18:05:28

Mummies found off the coast of Scotland are Frankenstein-like composites of several corpses, researchers say.

This mixing of remains was perhaps designed to combine different ancestries into a single lineage, archaeologists speculated.

The bodies were first unearthed in 2001 during excavations beneath the foundations of an approximately 3,000-year-old house on South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The building was one of three roundhouses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village named after a nearby modern graveyard. The site was populated in the Bronze Age from 2200 B.C. to 800 B.C. — scientists were digging here to learn more about this era in Britain, where little was known until recently.

The researchers had found what were apparently the remains of a teenage girl and a 3-year-old child at the site. However, two other bodies looked especially strange — those of a man and a woman found in tight fetal positions as if they had been tightly wrapped up, reminiscent of "mummy bundles" seen in South America and other parts of the world. These bodies were apparently mummified on purpose, the first evidence of deliberate mummification in the ancient Old World outside of Egypt. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

Evidence for mummy mix-ups
Evidence of this mummification lies in how all the bones in both these bodies were still "articulated" or in the same positions as they were in life, revealing that sinew and perhaps skin were still holding them together when they were buried. Carbon dating these remains and their surroundings revealed these bodies were buried up to 600 years after death — to keep bodies from rotting to pieces after such a long time, they must have been intentionally preserved, unlike the bodies of animals also buried at the site, which had been left to decay.

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Mineral alterations of the outer layer of the bones suggest they were entombed in acidic surroundings, such as those found in nearby peat bogs. Exposures to such bogs for a year or so would have mummified them, stopping microbes from decomposing the bodies by essentially tanning them in much the same way that animal skin is turned into leather.

Ancient writings suggest that embalming was practiced in prehistoric Europe, not just in Egypt. For instance, ancient Greek philosopher Poseidonius, writing in about 100 B.C., "visited Gaul and recorded that the Celts there embalmed the heads of their victims in cedar oil and kept them in chests," said researcher Mike Parker-Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in England.

Bizarrely, the man's remains were composed of bones from three different people, possessing the torso and limbs of one man, the skull and neck of another, and the lower jaw from a third, possibly a woman.

The researchers made this discovery of his Frankenstein-like nature by analyzing his skeleton — for instance, evidence of arthritis was seen on the vertebrae of the neck, but not on the rest of the spine, revealing these parts came from different bodies. Also, the lower jaw had all its teeth, whereas those of the upper jaw were entirely missing, and the condition of the lower jaw's teeth revealed they once interacted with a full set of teeth in his upper jaw, showing they originally belonged to another man. [Image Gallery: Scanning Mummies for Disease]

To see if the woman's skeleton was also a composite, the researchers analyzed ancient DNA from the skull, lower jaw, right upper arm and right thighbone. This revealed that the lower jaw, arm bone and thighbone all came from different people. Data from the skull was inconclusive. (Oddly, the upper two teeth next to her front teeth had been removed and placed in each hand.)

The first composite was apparently assembled between 1260 B.C. and 1440 B.C., while the second composite was assembled between 1130 B.C. and 1310 B.C. "There is overlap, but the statistical probability is that they were assembled at different times," Parker-Pearson said.

Although one Frankenstein-like mix-up of body parts might be an accident, "the second instance makes this unlikely," Parker-Pearson said.

Mummification apparently took off in Britain about 1500 B.C. "at a time when land ownership — communal rather than private, most likely — was being marked by the construction of large-scale field systems," Parker-Pearson told LiveScience. "Rights to land would have depended on ancestral claims, so perhaps having the ancestors around 'in the flesh' was their prehistoric equivalent of a legal document."

"Merging different body parts of ancestors into a single person could represent the merging of different families and their lines of descent," Parker-Pearson said. "Perhaps this was a prelude to building the row of houses in which numerous different families are likely to have lived."

Mummies? Britain?
When the bones were first discovered, Parker-Pearson admitted, "some archaeologists were rightly skeptical," as mummification in the British Bronze Age was pretty much unheard of.

Even Parker-Pearson would've been skeptical of the finding, had he not studied the bones. "But since then, we have applied a battery of scientific methods, of which the ancient DNA analysis is the latest," he said. "Together with archaeological evidence from excavation, these analytical results make a fairly unassailable case for mummification and recombination."

"I don't think it implies any links with ancient Egypt or other distant civilizations at all," Parker-Pearson said about these findings. "Mummification is simple enough to do in your own kitchen, and has been surprisingly widespread among small-scale, traditional societies throughout the world in recent centuries."

In fact, he added, the idea that Egyptian practices of mummification diffused elsewhere was discredited more than 50 years ago.

"Altogether, these results have completely changed our ideas about treatment of the dead in prehistoric Britain," Parker-Pearson said. "Other archaeologists are now identifying similar examples now that the breakthrough has been made — beforehand, it was just unthinkable."

For instance, he said, what may be two examples of human mummies from Down Farm in Dorset, excavated by Martin Green in 2009, even have drill holes in the long bones, suggesting that their limbs were strung together.

The scientists detailed their findings in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: 7 ghoulish archaeological discoveries

  • University of Bradford

    Remember the haunted house in grade school where your hand was guided into a bowlful of "brains"? Those skinned grapes have nothing on what happened to Rachel Cubitt of the York Archaeological Trust in England. As she was cleaning a 2,000-year-old skull unearthed during a campus expansion project into a prehistoric farm, she "felt something move inside the cranium. Peering through the base of the skull, she spotted an unusual yellow substance," read a press release announcing the discovery of the oldest surviving human brain in Britain. The skull was found alone in a muddy pit. Researchers believe it may have been a ritual offering. In this image, Cubitt is using an endoscope to examine the remains. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about six more ghoulish archaeological discoveries.

  • Bricks thwarted vampires

    Matteo Borrini  /  AP

    A wooden stake in the heart is one well-known way to thwart a vampire, but the method was insufficient in the 16th century. Back then, a sure-fire vampire slaying entailed putting a stone or brick in the suspected vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death. The remains of the 60-year-old woman found in a mass grave near Venice, shown here, was one of those purported vampires, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University. At the time, plague ravaged the region. People were buried in mass graves that were often reopened to add new bodies. When they did, bloated bodies with blood spilling from their mouths and holes in their head shrouds were often revealed. These corpses were thought to be vampires.

  • Ball and chain tied to gruesome tale

    Museum of London

    A 17th century iron ball and chain pulled from thick, black mud on the banks of the River Thames in London may have a gruesome tale to tell, according to scientists. The 18-pound shackles were found with the lock fastened and no key, suggesting the prisoner either slipped out of custody or drowned while attempting to escape. Kate Sumnall, an archaeologist with the Museum of London, shown here, told reporters the iron is of high quality and was unlikely discarded on purpose.

  • Unearthed Greek vessels contain human remains

    AP

    Human remains found in one of two large, silver vessels in the heart of Aigai, the ancient capital of Macedonia, have thickened a murder-mystery plot. The unidentified remains, thought to date to the end of the 4th century B.C., were unearthed a few steps away from what some archaeologists speculate are the bones of Alexander the Great's murdered teenage son. What's odd is both burials are outside nearby cemeteries, suggesting either a form of punishment or an illegal act, archaeologists told the Associated Press. "Either way, it was an exceptional event," archaeologist Stella Drougou of Aristotle University, told the news service. "And we know the history of the Macedonian kings is full of acts of revenge and violent succession."

  • Urine-filled 'witch bottle'

    For those afraid a witch may have cast a spell upon them, follow this recipe: pee in a bottle, toss in some fingernail clippings, strands of hair, iron nails, brass pins and a heart-shaped piece of leather pierced with a bent nail and then bury it upside down. If all goes well, the trick will cast the spell back on the witch, perhaps killing her — or so goes a 17th century witchcraft belief. Such a bottle was discovered in Greenwich, England, and dates to a time when witchcraft beliefs were more common, according to British Archaeology magazine.

  • Bog body preserves tale of violent death

    Trustees of the British Museum

    Someone in the first century had it out for Lindow Man, a 25-year-old found face down in a northwest England moss bog. Examination of the well-preserved body shows that the otherwise healthy gentleman suffered two blows to the head and a swift knee to the back. A cord tied around his neck was likely used to strangle him and break his neck. Then, just to make sure he was dead, his throat was slit. The sequence of events, some scientists suggest, is consistent with a ritualistic killing, perhaps a human sacrifice carried out by Druids.

  • Gory sacrifice found at Teotihuacan

    Henry Romero / Reuters

    In 2004, a grisly scene was unearthed outside of modern-day Mexico City. Decapitated bodies were found tossed to the side of a burial tomb, their hands tied behind their backs. The discovery suggests the little-known culture that built the giant Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan held bloody, sacrificial rituals. Two other bodies decorated with beads and greenstones, as well as animals and other offerings, were also found in the tomb. "Whether the victims and animals were killed at the site or a nearby place, the foundation ritual must have been one of the most terrifying acts recorded archaeologically in Mesoamerica," archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama of Aichi Prefectural University in Japan said in a statement announcing the discovery.

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