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Issue 21 - Those who lay beneath us

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


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Those who lay beneath us

You don't normally associate mummies – the wrapped up kind – with Scotland. But the ones at Cladh Hallan are worth investigating

Scotland goes with mummies about as well as Egypt goes with bagpipes. Traditionally, the two are most definitely mutually exclusive.

So to say that the islands of the Outer Hebrides are an unlikely place to find mummified remains would most certainly be an understatement.

The world’s most famous mummies are indeed Egyptian or South American, but they have turned up in more surprising places from time to time: throughout Asia, off Alaska, even in southwest America.

There is no record of preserved dead in Europe; and until recently, there was no reason to believe that embalming had ever been in practice here. Britain, therefore, was about as likely a site for painstakingly preserved remains as, say, the floor of the Atlantic.

When one sees the treeless, rugged landscape of the Hebridean Isle of South Uist, however, the idea doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

The current inhabitants of this most westerly Scottish outpost number something over 2,000, and for the most part remain quite staunchly steeped in Hebridean tradition. Gaelic remains an important influence, as does traditional music, and the community is still a crofting one.

Though certainly an attraction to visitors from all corners, the island is famous for little, and seems to like it that way. In fact, apart from being the scene of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rescue by Flora MacDonald after his escape from Culloden, Uist for the most part keeps itself to itself.

In 1988, Sheffield University’s Archaeology Department began their study of our little island, under the direction of Prof. Mike Parker Pearson.

The islanders noted their presence, and from 1994 onwards the yearly influx of Archaeology students became a part of summer life. They chose to dig near our own modern graveyard, Hallan, and thus called the site ‘Cladh Hallan’.

Years passed. Each August the diggers excavated yet another layer, going quickly back in time. They breached the confines of living memory, travelling back to the Middle Ages, through the Viking Period, then the Iron Age, and finally reaching the Bronze Age (circa 2,200-650BC).

The site proved to be a part of an ancient settlement, built sometime around 1,000BC.

Three enormous ‘wheelhouses’ have now been excavated; these form what’s likely to be only part of a larger village.

They are so called not only for their round shape, but also for the seemingly ‘segmented’ division of daily life within. Activities took place in anti-clockwise rotation, moving south to north: the eating area in the south led to the working area on the east side of the house, and the bed (springy turf and grass) lay on the north side.

It’s believed that the circular structure and movement followed the sun, and perhaps embodied the religious beliefs of the time.

The houses certainly marked a change from the previous dwelling, a very different type of architectural structure which has been called a ‘boathouse’ as a reference to its U-shape.

Built in 2,000BC, it had been long since been abandoned and burned down by the next millennium. The new settlement was constructed on top of the old, a sign that continuity and tradition were enormously important to Bronze Age Hebrideans.

This was likely the case throughout Britain, as the wheelhouses were not unique to the Hebrides; they were common from the Orkneys to the south coast of England well into the Iron Age.

In the rest of Europe at this time, houses were rectangular; but wheelhouses of uniform style are found exclusively in Britain and Ireland. This would certainly reflect the Celtic preoccupation with circular structures and movements, which had by this time been around for centuries.

There are plenty of Early Bronze Age monuments – such as brochs, stone circles and the like – scattered throughout the Hebrides. It was in fact likely that the inhabitants of the Early Bronze Age ‘boathouse’ built the Askernish stone circle (circa 2,000BC), a mile or two down the beach from the Cladh Hallan site.

The construction of the new houses was quite an enterprise. Before the builders began revamping this already ancient site, they dug several large pits in a northeast-southwest line.

Why this was done is a complete mystery, though there was almost certainly a clear method to the exercise: the workers seem to have used Ben Mhor as a sight line.

After being dug, the pits were filled in with clean sand – perhaps the foundations dug for the houses themselves – containing bone fragments, pottery, and cremated remains. The purpose of the pits leaves us with just one of the infuriating question marks commonly found in prehistoric archaeology.

The building of the houses began soon after the pits were filled in; and how better to start off than by burying a few dead bodies under the floor of your new house? Not so popular today, perhaps, unless one is a serial killer, but foundation burials are evidenced through the Highlands and islands of Scotland well into the modern age.

More recently, the deposits were less likely to be human, but traditionalists continued to offer some kind of sacrifice – to the gods, it’s thought – in order to ensure a happy home. And these Bronze Age Uisteachs were clearly taking no chances.

Under the floor of the south house was the corpse of a baby. It had lived for only three months, but by the time it was buried here was at least three centuries old. The child had not been mummified.

The middle house was the largest, and was inhabited for six centuries in all, finally being abandoned around 400BC. Under its floor was the body of a teenager, probably a girl; we have no idea who she was or how she died.

The most interesting burial, however, lay under the north house – and quite fittingly. This house has been called ‘the house of the dead’, and not just because of its gruesome deposits.

Immediately outside the entrance was a cremation pyre. Also, several other bodies had been buried here through centuries of rebuilding – including a newborn baby – and there were several deposits of carefully placed cremated remains. It’s thought that priests of some kind may have lived here, or ritualists somehow linked to death and its morbid practices.

Thus, when the archaeologists excavated the north house, finding more bodies would certainly not have surprised them. They did, however, notice a few strange things about the middleaged couple they’d unearthed.

In each hand, the woman held one of her own (posthumously removed) lateral incisors. As well as this, the male skeleton was in fact made up of three men: the body of one, the head and neck of a second, and the jaw of a third.

Strangest of all was the position of the bones: they were crouched, and so tightly that it was clear the bodies had been bound for a long while before the flesh had left the bones behind.

After several tests including radiocarbon dating, it’s been ascertained that upon burial the woman had been dead for three centuries, the man for six (though the skull and jaw were centuries younger).

We now know that the bodies were both eviscerated shortly after death, then placed in a peat bog for a matter of months. These were no simply ‘bog bodies’ preserved by accident.

The bodies were left in this strange chemical environment for just long enough to preserve the skin, but not long enough to de-mineralise the bone.

The people who removed the bodies from the bog did so with the distinct intention of preserving them for posterity.

Why was such care taken to preserve these bodies, in particular? And another question, just as tantalising: why were they buried centuries later?

The reasons for the mummification are difficult to decipher. We can be certain that the two mummies were kept above ground for centuries, most likely in a sacred place, certainly in one that was warm and dry.

They were clearly treated with a great deal of respect, even though years of wear and tear had caused the male body to lose his head at some point. Perhaps the replacement was simply a convenient skull, necessary by this stage for ceremonial purposes.

The man would already have been dead 300 years by this time, and remembered by no one living – yet the respectful treatment of his body continued for a further three centuries.

We have no way of knowing more than this, based on current evidence. Reasons for embalming practices vary according to place and time: the Egyptians were convinced the body must remain intact if the soul were to pass into the afterlife, thus most not only volunteered for preservation, but paid handsomely for it.

The Incas mummified their emperors, thus allowing them to continue playing a part in society. In Japan and Tibet, mummification was reserved for holy men. Tribes of the Amazon mummified the heads of enemies, mounting them on their walls as trophies. The Guanche mummies of Tenerife were the societal elite, who had attained their positions through hard graft rather than heredity; not much is known about their civilisation.

So, that leaves us with several possibilities in regards to our newly discovered ancestors.

It’s very possible that the ancient Hebridean hierarchy involved ceremonies similar to the Incas, attended by the mummies so that their power could be harnessed for the good of the society as a whole.

In short, we simply don’t know; but we can be relatively certain that more mummies are waiting to be found on the island, and perhaps throughout Britain as a whole.

As for the reasons for the burial – it was clearly not simply a case of ‘getting rid’ of the bodies.

Surely if this were the case, they would have been cremated, or buried in a more fitting not-so-final resting-place.

These figures, however, seem to have been recognised by their descendants – presumably our own ancestors – as a foundation in more ways than one. It may seem odd, but to archaeologists and historians the burials’ location beneath the settlement indicates respect for the mummies.

In most cases, the bodies were placed under the northeast side of the wheelhouses; this is thought to be the ‘closing’ phase of the circle. The shape is believed to be symbolic of life, beginning with birth and ending with death.

The mummification certainly seems to reflect this cyclical view of life, and the part played in it by death.

For more information, read South Uist: Archaeology and History of a Hebridean Island by Mike Parker-Pearson et al (Tempus Publishing, 2004).