A computer-generated scan of a 2,500-year-old human skull shows brain matter in dark gray. The lighter gray colors in the skull represent soil.
First dug up in 2008 by archaeologists in York, England (see map), the well-preserved brain prompted experts to investigate how the tissue had stayed in such good shape.
A new study released in March suggests that the skull had been quickly buried in a pit full of thick, wet clay—among several factors that may have helped prevent the brain from decomposing.
The cool, low-oxygen conditions of the soil may have aided in the brain's preservation, according to the study, published in March in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
—With reporting by James Owen
Photograph courtesy York Archaeological Trust
One of the pieces of the ancient brain is seen after removal from the skull.
Analyses of the tissue and remains of the surrounding skull suggest the Iron Age brain belonged to a male between 26 and 45 who was hanged and then ritually decapitated. The rest of the man's body hasn't been located.
Protein analysis confirmed the ancient brain matter—dated to between 673 and 482 B.C.—belonged to a human, said study co-author Matthew Collins, an archaeologist at the University of York.
"The majority of the mass of the brain is still there, but it's quite reduced in volume—it's lost a lot of water."
Photograph courtesy University of Bradford
Ancient Farming Site
York Archaeological Trust workers excavate the Iron Age farming site where the brain was discovered in an undated picture.
The fact that the skull was found with intact jaw and neck bones shows that the head was buried fresh.
"If you moved the skull at a later date, the soft tissue would have decayed"—resulting in the jaw and vertebrae coming detached, said study co-author Jo Buckberry, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford.