Tightly wrapped mummies conjure up images of ancient Egypt, but very few people would think of ancient England. Now, scientists have presented evidence that the practice of preserving bodies might have been widespread in the Bronze Age Britain, from 2500 B.C.E. to 800 B.C.E. To find out whether the ancient English mummified their dead, archaeologists examined skeletons from burial sites across the island and compared them with well-preserved mummies from Yemen and Ireland (where they were preserved in a peat bog). Mummification—preserving dead tissue by removing internal organs and treating the flesh with chemicals or smoke—prevents bacteria from feasting on the recently deceased. In dry climates, the flesh stays preserved for centuries. But in the damp soil of the United Kingdom, even mummified tissue eventually decays. The bones that remain, however, show no scars from microbial attack, unlike the skeletons of the unpreserved. A microscopic analysis of 34 individuals from Bronze Age burial sites across Great Britain reveals that only some skeletons at each site suffered bacterial degradation. The remaining bones came from mummified bodies, the researchers conclude in a paper recently published in Antiquity (but not yet on the journal’s website). Skeletons buried during other historical periods don’t show the same intact bones, so the phenomenon appears to be unique to the Bronze Age, say the scientists. “The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period,” the researchers say in a statement.
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