Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Frankenstein's ancestors...

Now here's something that's really interesting for you...

Ten ago the remains of several mummified corpses were found during a dig on South Uist - something that was exciting enough on its own, perhaps, but not least because they were then found to date from the Bronze Age. The evidence suggested that the corpses had been deliberately mummified, and had been placed in a bog for at least a year before being removed and then kept for many generations before they were finally buried.

Aside from being unique at the time, the find was exciting on a number of levels - providing evidence on Bronze Age burial practice, giving clear hints at what was presumed to be ancestor worship, as well as the implications as far as a belief in an afterlife are concerned, amongst other things.

The bodies were identified as male and female. Recent testing, however, has revealed that the mummies are in fact composites, made up of several different individuals and not all of the same sex:

A team from the University of Sheffield first uncovered the remains of a three-month-old-child, a possible young female adult, a female in her 40s and a male under the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan.

But recent tests on the remains carried out by the University of Manchester, show that the "female burial", previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite.

It was made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male.

Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis showed that the male mummy was also a composite.

Aside from there being implications in this new discovery as far as ancestor worship/veneration is concerned, it's also thought that:

"These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act," [Prof Parker Pearson] said.

(Somehow I doubt the various body parts came together by accident, so er, yeah...definitely deliberate). So not only is there possible evidence of ancestor worship here, the mummies could also be evidence of how social bonds were formed and maintained within a community - or one way in which that was done, at least. The find also raises some interesting questions about sex and gender in Bronze Age communities - is the mixing of sexes significant, relating to their function? Or perhaps the sex of the various corpses that were incorporated was incidental, and their status or role in the community was more significant...

Who knows. It's speculated that there are other mummies out there that may have been overlooked in the past - due to the state of their preservation, or whatever (once they're put in the ground, the mummified flesh wouldn't survive unless the conditions were just right, so you wouldn't necessarily realise that straight away). But given the fact that Bronze Age burial practice is something that seems to have continued into the the early Iron Age, there are some interesting questions there too.