What was discovered about them at the time was strange enough:
Several months of detailed scientific tests followed, including radio carbon dating of the bones and of other materials from the site. The first suggestion that the skeletons had actually come from mummified bodies arose when the radio carbon dates came back from the laboratory.Apparently, the bodies were mummified by placing them in a peat bog, probably for around a year and perhaps for exactly a year. Of course we have long known that Bronze age people put bodies in bogs from time to time, but it has never before been documented that they did so as a means of mummification.
To the astonishment of the archaeologists, they saw that one individual (a male) had died in around 1,600 BC - but had been buried a full six centuries later, in around 1,000 BC. What is more, a second individual (a female) had died in around 1,300 BC - and had had to wait 300 years before being interred.
The archaeologists thought this strange. They had never encountered anything like it before. If the skeletons had been left unburied for 600 or 300 years they would have ended up as just a pile of bones. It seemed that perhaps in some way the sinews and skin had been deliberately preserved, to permanently hold the skeletons together. The researchers began to wonder whether they had come across Britain's first mummies.
Next came the second piece of startling evidence. If indeed the uncovered bones had once belonged to mummified bodies, then how had the mummification been carried out?
Now the story has just gotten even stranger:
Recent tests on the remains, carried out by the University of Manchester, show that the "female burial", previously identified as such because of the pelvis of the skeleton, was in fact a composite. It was made up of three different people, and some parts, such as the skull, were male. Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis showed that the male mummy was also a composite.One of the excavators, Mike Parker Pearson, had this explanation:
"These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act," he said. "I don't believe these 'mummies' were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world." He said as part of ancestral worship, the mummies probably would have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.I suppose it is possible that the mummies just decayed over time, and so the rotten bits were replaced, but I think Parker Pearson is pointing in the right direction. We suspect that Neolithic and Bronze Age Britons were much into using burial practices to express lineage and community, hence their enormous investment in large, communal tombs. The people at Cladh Hallan used Beaker pottery and seem to have been related to that culture, which was somewhat different from the more communal societies of the Neolithic -- they practiced individual, cremation burial, among other things. They still had a great focus on communal, religious activity, though, expressed through building stone circles (there is one near Cladh Hallan), complex earthworks, and so on.
We also know that many people around the world had ongoing, complex relationships with their dead ancestors' bodies. Many people mummified their important ancestors and placed the bodies in special temples where they could be consulted as needed. One of the themes of Ian Hodder's work at Catal Hoyuk has been the concealment of spiritually powerful objects, including dead bodies, in certain houses where (we suppose) clan elders or cult initiates would know how to access them for consultation or ritual purposes. People around the world have also messed with dead bodies in various ways, for example burying the heads in one place and the bodies in another, or even making drinking cups from the skulls and tools from the long bones. We tend to think of this being done to enemies, as the Germanic barbarians did, but among some people this was done with their own closest relations.
The special treatment of the Cladh Hallan mummies fits into this pattern. These composite people, assembled from mighty ancestors, were kept on hand for use in ritual or to answer questions as needed. On the other hand they endured for an exceptionally long time. Perhaps they endured because most of the bodies in the community were cremated, cutting off the supply of replacement mummies. That change may represent other cultural shifts, so that the mummies were relics of the past, and perhaps represented a link to an earlier time that came to be seen as a period of greater wisdom or even spiritual danger.
Eventually, of course, the mummies outlived their usefulness and were buried beneath the floors of a row of impressive roundhouses (above and below) built on carefully prepared stone and earth terraces. This act of building may represent another major cultural change for the community, one that rendered the mummies more useful and magical supports for the new buildings than as active participants in communal life.