National Geographic News
A Bronze Age mummy.

A female Bronze Age mummy from Cladh Hallan is a composite of different skeletons.

Photograph courtesy Mike Parker Pearson, University of Sheffield

Rachel Kaufman

for National Geographic News

July 6, 2012

In a "eureka" moment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish "bog bodies" are actually made from the remains of six people.

According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the mummies—a male and a female—were assembled from various body parts, although the purpose of the gruesome composites is likely lost to history.

The mummies were discovered more than a decade ago below the remnants of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on the island of South Uist (map), off the coast of Scotland.

The bodies had been buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death. (See bog body pictures.)

Based on the condition and structures of the skeletons, scientists had previously determined that the bodies had been placed in a peat bog just long enough to preserve them and then removed. The skeletons were then reburied hundreds of years later.

(Related pictures: "Ancient Bog Girl's Face Reconstructed.")

Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, said there were clues that these bog bodies were more than they seemed.

On the female skeleton, "the jaw didn't fit into the rest of the skull," he said. "So Mike [Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University] came and said, Could we try to work it out through DNA testing?"

Brown sampled DNA from the female skeleton's jawbone, skull, arm, and leg. The results show that bones came from different people, none of whom even shared the same mother, he said.

The female is made from body parts that date to around the same time period. But isotopic dating showed that the male mummy is made from people who died a few hundred years apart.

Quick Dip in the Bog

Another clue to the odd nature of the Cladh Hallan mummies is their unusually well-preserved bones.

A peat bog is a high-acid, low-oxygen environment, which inhibits the bacteria that break down organics, said Gill Plunkett, a lecturer in paleoecology at Queen's University Belfast who was not involved in the current study.

"The combined conditions are particularly good for the preservation of most organic materials," she said. (Also see "Medieval Christian Book Discovered in Ireland Bog.")

"But on the other hand, the acidic conditions will attack calcium-based materials," so most known bog bodies have better preserved skin and soft tissue than bones.

(Related: "Murdered 'Bog Men' Found With Hair Gel, Manicured Nails.")

In the Cladh Hallan bodies, the bones are still articulated—attached to each other as they would be in life. This suggests that the buriers removed the bodies from the peat bog after preservation but before acid destroyed the bones.

When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down.

The researchers aren't sure why the villagers went through this unusual process, or why they built composite mummies in the first place.

A cynical theory, study author Brown said, assumes that the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan were just eminently practical: "Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on."

Another possibility is that the merging was deliberate, to create a symbolic ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages.

Brown cites the example of the Chinchorro mummies discovered in the Chilean Andes, where embalmers reinforced or reconstructed bodies with sticks, grass, animal hair, or even sea lion skin. (Also see "Prehistoric Mummies Poisoned.")

"It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it's not a single identity, but it's representing something."

More Combo Mummies Out There?

According to Brown, there may be other composite bodies waiting to be discovered.

Often when scientists study the DNA of very ancient remains, they sample only one part of a body to prevent needless damage to the skeleton.

Additional composite bodies, if they exist, are likely to come from such long-ago time periods.

"I think you'd have to go back to a time when the rituals were more bizarre," Brown said. "You'd have to go back to the mists of unrecorded time."

The new paper about the composite female mummy appears in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

craig hill
craig hill

Inasmuch as it has been determined the bones were reburied 300-600 years after their bog interregnum, seems to me pretty obvious that in that long meantime of those 3-6 centuries the bones were jumbled together. Once people found them and decided they had to be buried to save their souls or something they believed in, they tried to reassemble them the best they could, not thinking they had to get everything right but just to give them a form, and that's what's been found. It's not that "the head fell off so they put another on", the bones were probably in a collection that, as the article states, was added to centuries apart. The reassemblers who buried the bones did a pretty good job of it.

The idea the reassembling was deliberately jumbled is far-fetched. Ancient peoples were not so much interested in the symbolic images of their religious purposes---that lazy behavior is of a much more recent origin, when the somewhat-religious started going thru the motions and didn't really believe what they were doing, except symbolically. These people were not attempting to represent an idea but the literal body, for if they didn't get it right as well as they could they would fear a bad reaction from the deities they were trying to serve by reburying them. We don't believe in such gods, the evolution of religion having in the meantime absorbed awareness that we are One so what difference would it make today, or as far back as medieval days, to put the bodies correctly together?  The Chilean undertakers that used sea lion skin and whatnot to patch up their mummies did so because pieces were missing, the idea being to make the body as whole as possible without the Western fixation that everything is separate so skin from another mammal wouldn't work; the Chileans had a much more sophisticated view of the world, which was interrconnected and indisoluble from everything else, which we are slowly returning to after 2,000 years+ of strict and false differentiation between creatures.

These rituals were not more "bizarre" as the 21st century Brown insultingly and ignorantly concludes in his infinite wisdom, they make perfect sense when you stop imposing modern fast-food-type religion atop deep, ancient spirituality.

Alex O'Neal
Alex O'Neal

@craig hill Coming late to the party, but I'm so glad you wrote this. Reading the article all I could think was that the proffered solutions were way too complex and adding too many assumptions. If I found a jumble of bones in a bog I might very well do my best to compassionately bury them as if complete, even knowing bits were missing, simply out of respect (i.e., not dumping them in a pile). 

Likewise, your description of the Chileans simply replacing missing bits makes more sense to me than imposing some outre meaning like the synthesis of sea lion, stick, grass, and human attributes.


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