Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-6mkhv Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-01T22:39:27.135Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 March 2015

Mike Parker Pearson
Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S1 4ET, UK (Email:
Andrew Chamberlain
Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S1 4ET, UK (Email:
Oliver Craig
Centro di antropologia molecolare per lo studio del DNA antico, Dipartimento di Biologia, Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”, Via della Ricerca Scientifica 1, 00133 Roma, Italy
Peter Marshall
ARCUS, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S1 4ET, UK
Jacqui Mulville
School of History and Archaeology, University of Cardiff, PO Box 909, Cardiff, UK
Helen Smith
School of Conservation Sciences, University of Bournemouth, Bournemouth, UK
Carolyn Chenery
NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK
Matthew Collins
Departments of Biology and Archaeology, University of York, King’s Manor, York, YO1 7EP, UK
Gordon Cook
Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, Rankine Avenue, East Kilbride G75 0QF, UK
Geoffrey Craig
Department of Oral Pathology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK
Jane Evans
NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK
Jen Hiller
Structural Biophysics Group, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Cardiff, PO Box 909, Cardiff, UK
Janet Montgomery
Department of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP, UK
Jean-Luc Schwenninger
Research Laboratory for Archaeology & the History of Art, 6 Keble Road, Oxford OX1 3QJ, UK
Gillian Taylor
Department of Geosciences & Civil Engineering, University of Newcastle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
Timothy Wess
Structural Biophysics Group, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Cardiff, PO Box 909, Cardiff, UK


Ancient Egyptians are thought to have been the only people in the Old World who were practising mummification in the Bronze Age (c. 2200-700 BC). But now a remarkable series of finds from a remote Scottish island indicates that Ancient Britons were performing similar, if less elaborate, practices of bodily preservation. Evidence of mummification is usually limited to a narrow range of arid or frozen environments which are conducive to soft tissue preservation. Mike Parker Pearson and his team show that a combination of microstructural, contextual and AMS 14C analysis of bone allows the identification of mummification in more temperate and wetter climates where soft tissues and fabrics do not normally survive. Skeletons from Cladh Hallan on South Uist, Western Isles, Scotland were buried several hundred years after death, and the skeletons provide evidence of post mortem manipulation of body parts. Perhaps these practices were widespread in mainland Britain during the Bronze Age.

Copyright © Antiquity Publications Ltd. 2005

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Armit, I. 1996. The archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
Ballin Smith, B. 1994. Howe: four millennia of Orkney prehistory. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland monograph 9.Google Scholar
Barber, J. 2002. Bronze Age farms and Iron Age farm mounds of the outer Hebrides. Edinburgh: Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports.Google Scholar
Barber, J., Halstead, P., James, H. & Lee, F.. 1989. An unusual Iron Age burial at Hornish Point, South Uist. Antiquity 63: 773–78.Google Scholar
Barber, M. 2003. Bronze and the Bronze Age: metalworking and society in Britain c. 2500–800 BC. Stroud: Tempus.Google Scholar
Barrett, J.H., Beukens, R.P. & Brothwell, D.R.. 2000. Radiocarbon dating and marine reservoir correction of Viking Age Christian burials from Orkney. Antiquity 74: 537–43.Google Scholar
Bell, L., Skinner, S.M.F. & Jones, S.J.. 1996. The speed of post mortem change to the human skeleton and its taphonomic significance. Forensic Science International 82: 129–40.Google Scholar
Bewley, B. 2003. Prehistoric settlements. Second edition. Stroud: Tempus.Google Scholar
Bradley, R. 1998. The Significance of Monuments: on the shaping of human experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Branigan, K., Edwards, K.J. & Merrony, C.. 2002. Bronze Age fuel: the oldest direct evidence for deep peat cutting and stack construction? Antiquity 76: 849–55.Google Scholar
Bronk Ramsey, C. 1995. Radiocarbon calibration and analysis of stratigraphy. Radiocarbon 36: 425–30.Google Scholar
Bronk Ramsey, C. 1998. Probability and dating. Radiocarbon 40: 461–74.Google Scholar
Bronk Ramsey, C. 2000. Comment on ‘The use of Bayesian statistics for 14C dates of chronological ordered samples: a critical analysis’. Radiocarbon 42: 199202.Google Scholar
Brück, J. 1999. Houses, lifecycles and deposition on Middle Bronze Age settlements in southern England. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 65: 145–66.Google Scholar
Burgess, C. 1980. The Age of Stonehenge. London: Dent.Google Scholar
Chamberlain, A.T. & Parker Pearson, M.. 2001. Earthly Remains: the history and science of preserved human bodies. London: British Museum Press.Google Scholar
Curle, A.O. 1944. The excavation of the “Wag” or prehistoric cattle fold at Forse, Caithness, and the relation of “wags” to brochs and implications arising therefrom. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 80: 1125.Google Scholar
Curle, A.O. 1948. The “wag” of Forse, Caithness: report of further excavation made in 1947 and 1948. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 82: 275–85.Google Scholar
Darling, W.G., Bath, A.H. & Talbot, J.C.. 2003. The O & H stable isotopic composition of fresh waters in the British Isles: 2, Surface waters and groundwater. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 7: 183–95.Google Scholar
Fitzpatrick, A. 1994. Outside in: the structure of an Early Iron Age house at Dunston Park, Thatcham, Berkshire, in Fitzpatrick, A. & Morris, E. (ed.). The Iron Age in Wessex: recent work: 6872. Salisbury: Trust for Wessex Archaeology & AFEAF.Google Scholar
Fitzpatrick, A. 1997. Everyday life in Iron Age Wessex, in Gwilt, A. & Haselgrove, C. (ed.) Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: new approaches to the British Iron Age: 7386. Oxford: Oxbow.Google Scholar
Gelfand, A.E. & Smith, A.F.M.. 1990. Sampling approaches to calculating marginal densities. Journal of the American Statistical Association 85: 398409 Google Scholar
Gilks, W.R., Richardson, S. & Spiegelhalther, D.J.. 1996. Markov chain Monte Carlo in practice. London: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
Gill-Robinson, H. 1999. Piglets in peat: experimental archaeology in the study of bog body preservation, in Coles, B., Coles, J. & Schou Jørgensen, M. (ed.) Bog bodies, sacred sites and wetland archaeology. Exeter: WARP. 99102.Google Scholar
Green, M. 2003. A landscape revealed: 10 000 years on a chalkland farm. Stroud: Tempus.Google Scholar
Harkin, M. 1990. Mortuary practices and the category of the person among the Heiltsuk. Arctic Anthropology 27: 87108.Google Scholar
Hedges, R.E.M. & Millard, A.R.. 1995. Bones and groundwater – towards the modelling of diagenetic processes. Journal of Archaeological Science 22: 155–64.Google Scholar
Hill, J.D. 1996. Hill-forts and the Iron Age of Wessex, in Champion, T.C. & Collis, J.R. (ed.) The Iron Age in Britain and Ireland: recent trends: 95116. Sheffield: J.R. Collis Publications.Google Scholar
Hiller, J.C., Chamberlain, A., Mulville, J., Parker Pearson, M., Smith, H. & Wess, T.J.. In prep. Evidence for preservation in prehistoric human bone.Google Scholar
Hingley, R. 1995. The Iron Age in Atlantic Scotland: searching for the meaning of the substantial house, in Cumberpatch, C. & Hill, J.D. (ed.) Differing Iron Ages: studies on the Iron Age in temperate Europe: 185–91. Oxford: BAR Int. Series 602.Google Scholar
Hudson, G. 1991. The geomorphology and soils of the Outer Hebrides, in Pankhurst, R.J. & Mullin, J.M. (ed.) Flora of the Outer Hebrides: 1927. London: Natural History Museum.Google Scholar
Levinson, A.A., Luz, B. & Kolodny, Y.. 1987. Variations in oxygen isotopic compositions of human teeth and urinary stones. Applied Geochemistry 2: 367371.Google Scholar
Mcintyre, L. 2004. Evidence for the post-mortem treatment of crouched burials in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. Unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Sheffield.Google Scholar
Montgomery, J., Evans, J.A. & Neighbour, T.. 2003. Sr isotope evidence for population movement within the Hebridean Norse community of NW Scotland. Journal of the Geological Society 160: 649–53.Google Scholar
Montgomery, J., Evans, J.A., Powlesland, D. & Roberts, C.A.. 2005. Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice and status at West Heslerton. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 126: 123–38.Google Scholar
O’neil, J.R., Roe, L.J., Reinhard, E. & Blake, R.E.. 1994. A rapid and precise method of oxygen isotope analysis of biogenic phosphate. Israel Journal of Earth Science 43: 203–12.Google Scholar
Oswald, A. 1997. A doorway on the past: practical and mystic concerns in the orientation of roundhouse doorways, in Gwilt, A. & Haselgrove, C. (ed.) Reconstructing Iron Age societies: new approaches to the British Iron Age: 8795. Oxford: Oxbow.Google Scholar
Parker Pearson, M. 1993. Bronze Age Britain. London: Batsford and English Heritage.Google Scholar
Parker Pearson, M. 1996. Food, fertility and front doors in the first millennium BC, in Champion, T.C. & Collis, J.R. (ed.) The Iron Age in Britain and Ireland: recent trends: 117–32. Sheffield: J.R. Collis Publications.Google Scholar
Parker Pearson, M. 1999. Food, sex and death: cosmologies in the British Iron Age with particular reference to East Yorkshire. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9: 4369.Google Scholar
Parker Pearson, M., Sharples, N. & Mulville, J.. 1996. Brochs and Iron Age society: a reappraisal. Antiquity 70: 5767.Google Scholar
Parker Pearson, M. & Sharples, N. with Mulville, J. & Smith, H.. 1999. Between land and sea: excavations at Dun Vulan, South Uist. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.Google Scholar
Parker Pearson, M., Sharples, N. & Symonds, J. with Mulville, J., Raven, J., Smith, H. & Woolf, A.. 2004. South Uist: archaeology and history of a Hebridean island. Stroud: Tempus.Google Scholar
Pitts, M. 2002. Cladh Hallan. Current Archaeology 179: 455.Google Scholar
Simpson, W.G. 1976. A barrow cemetery of the second millennium BC at Tallington, Lincolnshire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 42: 215–39.Google Scholar
Smith, R.J.C., Healy, F., Allen, M.J., Morris, E.L., Barnes, I. & Woodward, P.J. 1997. Excavations along the route of the Dorchester by-pass, Dorset, 1986–8. Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology.Google Scholar
Steier, P & Rom, W.. 2000. The use of Bayesian statistics for 14C dates of chronologically ordered samples: a critical analysis. Radiocarbon 42: 183–98.Google Scholar
Stuiver, M. & Reimer, P.J.. 1993. Extended 14C data base and revised CALIB 3.0 14C age calibration program. Radiocarbon 35: 215–30.Google Scholar
Stuiver, M., Reimer, P.J., Bard, E., Beck, J.W., Burr, G.S., Hughen, K.A., Kromer, B., Mccormac, G., Van Der Plicht, J. & Spurk, M.. 1998. INTCAL98 Radiocarbon age calibration, 24,000–0 cal BP. Radiocarbon 40: 104183.Google Scholar
Turner, R.C. & Scaife, R.G. (ed.) 1995. Bog bodies: new discoveries and new perspectives. London: British Museum.Google Scholar
Turner-Walker, G., Nielsen-Marsh, C.M., Syversen, U., Kars, H. & Collins, M.J.. 2002. Sub-micron spongiform porosity is the major ultra-structural alteration occurring in archaeological bone. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 12: 407–14.Google Scholar
Van Der Sanden, W.A.B. 1996. Through nature to eternity: the bog bodies of northwest Europe. Amsterdam: Batavian Lion.Google Scholar