Ancient Britons mummified their dead like Egyptians

© Lucy Nicholson
Ancient British people were mummifying their dead even as the ancient Egyptians were carrying out the macabre practice, according to new research.

The study, led by Dr Tom Booth of London’s Natural History Museum, revealed that the use of ritual embalming was widespread in ancient Britain with evidence of mummification having been found in locations as far apart as Kent, Dorset, Teesside and the Hebrides.

The process appears to have been used from around 2400 BC up until 1000 BC. Scientists now aim to examine another 30 skeletons from Scotland, Wales and Wiltshire to see if more evidence can be found.

Although the bodies found showed no outward signs of mummification, there was evidence on the surfaces of the bones suggesting the corpses had undergone the process.

The absence of bacteria tunneling into the bones indicates the bodies had their gut bacteria killed shortly after death, which is consistent with the process of mummification, researchers said.

In most cases bodies were immersed in peat bogs for several months. The tannin naturally found in the bogs is the same as that used in the process of making leather, and has preservative properties. In two other cases smoke and heat were used to preserve the dead.

Our team has found that by using microscopic bone analysis, archaeologists can determine whether a skeleton has been previously mummified, even when it is buried in an environment that isn’t favorable to mummified remains,” Booth told the archaeological journal Antiquity.

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It’s possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient cultures that mummified their dead,” he added.

Some experts suggest that after preservation had taken place the bodies would have been displayed inside building as part of a ritual of ancestor worship, with bodies surviving for long periods depending on the environmental conditions they were subject to.