Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain
Pearson, Mike Parker, Chamberlain, Andrew, Craig, Oliver, Marshall, Peter, Mulville, Jacqui, Smith, Helen, Chenery, Carolyn, Collins, Matthew, Cook, Gordon, Craig, Geoffrey, Evans, Jane, Hiller, Jen, Montgomery, Janet, Schwenninger, Jean-Luc, Taylor, Gillian, Wess, Timothy, Antiquity
Introduction--the site of Cladh Hallan
The Western Isles of Scotland--also known as the Outer Hebrides--contain some of the best preserved prehistoric settlements in the British Isles, dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age (Armit 1996; Parker Pearson et al. 2004). Perhaps the best known of these prehistoric remains are the brochs, stone-walled Iron Age roundhouses, some of which stood over 10m high (Parker Pearson et al. 1996). Until recently, little was known of the period before the brochs but archaeological excavations at Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist (Figure 1) have uncovered an unusually well preserved group of Late Bronze Age to Iron Age roundhouses (c. 1100-200 BC). The prehistoric settlement's main feature is a row of four or more roundhouses (Figures 2 and 3), all built as a single structure with party walls (Pitts 2002: 455; Barber 2003:174-5; Bewley 2003: 90-3; Parker Pearson et al. 2004: 64-82).
[FIGURES 1-3 OMITTED]
The houses were constructed as sunken-floored buildings, dug into the calcareous sand (known as machair sand) up to 1 m below ground level. The northernmost three of these houses were fully excavated; the fourth and possibly further houses to their south remain preserved within the southern half of the settlement mound. Within the north house (House 1370) were found the burials of two adults and a child, in the central house (House 401) a child and two dogs, and in the southern house (House 801) the burial of one child (Figure 4). Four of these burials, the two adults in the north house (a female, 2613 and a male, 2638) and the children in the central (2727) and southern houses (2792), were placed in the ground before the first floors of peaty sand were laid down. It is these burials, construed as pre-construction offerings, which also gave evidence for the prior mummification and curation of the bodies.
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
The floors of the middle and north roundhouses were unusual in that they consisted of sequences of multiple floor layers interspersed with make-up fills. Whereas the southern roundhouse had filled up with windblown sand on top of its initial floor, the middle round house had eight successive floors with a total depth of 1.3m. This continuous occupation and renovation spanned a period of almost a thousand years from c. 1100 BC to c. 200 BC, making it an unusually long-lived building. In the north house, the formation and use of two successive floors were followed by a brief period of abandonment (marked by windblown sand) and then the laying of a third floor (accompanied by a re-foundation burial of an infant). The infant was buried at the founding of the north house's third phase of occupation whilst the two dogs, one of them decapitated, were buried beneath the middle house's fourth floor (Figure 4).
The stratigraphic contexts of the burials
The skeletons of the four foundation burials lay within pits whose stratigraphic relationships to the roundhouses in which they are situated are strongly suggestive--but not unequivocally proven to be--of burial at the moment of house construction. The possibility that the bodies were buried as part of a cemetery, long before the roundhouses were erected, has to be considered but is highly unlikely for several reasons. Three of the four burials were located in a specific area of the roundhouses--the north-east quadrants. This association of death with the north-east was not only predicted before excavation began (Figure 5; see Parker Pearson & Sharpies 1999: fig. 1. 10c) but was also replicated by the subsequent (Late Bronze Age) burials of the infant and two dogs in the same quadrant within the floor sequences of the middle and north houses. Similarly, a human burial, cut into four and buried with animal bones in four small pits, was found beneath the north-east quadrant of an Early Iron Age roundhouse at Hornish Point at the north end of South Uist (Barber et al. …