Though they were very common centuries ago, these days many people tend to think of mummies as pretty freaky things. But archaeologists working in Scotland have just made a discovery that's pretty freaky by any century's standards: mummified bodies assembled from multiple people.
Back in 2001 several mummified bodies were discovered beneath the foundations of a 3,000-year-old house on South Uist, an island off the west coast of Scotland. The bodies apparently represent the first ancient mummies found outside of Egypt that were mummified on purpose.
That's a big discovery all by itself, but recent work done on the bodies revealed that there's more to them than scientists previously thought. According to analysis done on the bones of a mummified man found at the site, vertebrae on the neck showed evidence of arthritis, while the rest of the spine did not. Analysis also revealed that the lower jaw, which had all its teeth, had interacted with a full set of teeth on an upper jaw, but the mummy's upper jaw was missing all its teeth. The conclusion: The bones were originally from different bodies. It was eventually determined that the skeleton was actually composed of three different men: the skull and neck of one, the torso and limbs of another, and the lower jaw of a third (which, it turns out, might have belonged to a woman).
And the man wasn't the only Frankensteined body at the site. The mummy of a woman was also found to be made up of at least three different people. The male mummy is believed to have been cropped together sometime between 1260 and 1440 B.C., while the female was likely assembled sometime between 1120 and 1310 B.C. But why merge the bodies at all? Archaeologists theorize it had something to do with land rights.
According to archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson of England's University of Sheffield, the mummification process in ancient Britain likely started sometime around 1500 B.C., which was "a time when land ownership -- communal rather than private, most likely -- was being marked by the construction of large-scale field systems. Rights to land would have depended on ancestral claims, so perhaps having the ancestors around 'in the flesh' was their prehistoric equivalent of a legal document."
OK, so you needed your dead relatives around to prove you were related to them, but why mix them up like this? Parker-Pearson thinks it was a way of consolidating a family tree into one place. Instead of showing someone several bodies to prove you were related, just show them one mass of bones composed of three or four people.
"Merging different body parts of ancestors into a single person could represent the merging of different families and their lines of descent," Parker-Pearson said. "Perhaps this was a prelude to building the row of houses in which numerous different families are likely to have lived."
Well, it's disgusting, but for ancient Britain at least it might have been practical.