In 2001, a team of archaeologists found a pair of skeletons at an archaeological site on the island of South Uist off the coast of Scotland. At first, it appeared to be a typical Bronze Age discovery, but the researchers soon discovered that the finding was far from normal. While hearing the term “mummies” usually makes us think back to ancient Egypt, in this case, the archaeologists had stumbled on what has become known as Frankenstein mummies.
Finding the Frankenstein Mummies
Discovered at the archaeological site of Cladh Hallan, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, the skeletons, one male and one female, were buried in the fetal position. Initial tests revealed that the male had died in around 1600 BC, and the female had died in approximately 1300 BC. However, the scientists were perplexed at some of the characteristics of the remains. For example, the skeletons were very flexed, so they conducted further analyses.
To their astonishment, they found that although the male had died in around 1600 BC, he had not been buried until a full six centuries later, in about 1000 BC. Similarly, the female was not buried until 300 years after her death. This was highly unusual since any skeletons left unburied for that length of time would have ended up as just a pile of bones.
Archaeologists have discovered remains of what they believe to be ritual activity at the Cladh Hallan site. The remains of sacrificed animals, a sheep, and two dogs.
The Only Prehistoric Mummies in Great Britain
A closer inspection, the research team discovered that the bodies had once been preserved in peat bogs, which permanently held the skeletons together. Using modern forensic techniques, it was found that the outer 2mm of the bone had been demineralized, which is consistent with preservation caused by submersion in a peat bog for between 6 and 18 months. The discovery was unique because it is the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found.
Evidence suggests that the bog bodies were purposely preserved and later retrieved from the bog and set up inside a dwelling, presumably having religious significance. Sheffield University Professor Mike Parker Pearson believes the mummies played an important part in their society. They may have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions as part of ancestral worship.
Building Bodies: Why Are They Called Frankenstein Mummies?
However, the story did not end here because a decade later, another incredibly finding was made. Further DNA examination of the remains led to the startling discovery that the two skeletons were made up of body parts from six different individuals!
The torso, skull and neck, and lower jaw belonged to three separate men in the male skeleton. Meanwhile, the female structure is a composite formed from a male head, a female torso, and the arm of a third person whose gender had not been determined.
Carbon dating revealed that the skull of the “female” mummy is 50 to 200 years older than the torso. It appears that the mummies were made up of parts from people in the same families and then put together like a jigsaw to make it look like they were just one person.
But, Why Make Frankenstein Mummies?
Archaeologists have no idea why the remains were mummified and then mixed. However, Parker Pearson believes that the mixing of remains of the Frankenstein mummies was done to combine different ancestries of families to create a “symbolic ancestor” that embodied traits from multiple lineages. These Frankenstein mummies could even have been used to “exert rights over land, resources, and power,” highlights Tom Booth in The Conversation. “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.
However, Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, is more cynical and believes that the Bronze Age people of South Uist were just practical: “Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on.” Kerri Brown, an ancient DNA specialist who worked on the analysis of the Frankenstein mummies, this is what dubs a prehistoric “spare part surgery.”