DNA Typing Confirms Bronze Age Mix-and-Match Burials

Archaeologists have made an interesting discovery while excavating the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age settlement named Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. They have uncovered four human skeletons buried at regular intervals beneath three roundhouses dating from the 11th century BC: an adult male, an adult female, a 10–14-year-old girl and a 3-year-old child. The careful arrangement of these burials directly below the roundhouses led archaeologists to initially hypothesize that these might be foundation burials—an ancient practice in which people, usually younger people, were sacrificed and buried under a building’s foundation in the belief that their blood and spirit would protect and strengthen the building and building site. As strange as that custom seems to us, it gets weirder. Two of these skeletons showed signs of mummification and contained skeletal elements from multiple individuals intentionally pieced together to form intact skeletons.

After the initial discovery of these skeletons, archaeologists confirmed by visual inspection that the adult male skeleton was a composite from multiple individuals, with the skull of one individual, the mandible of another and the torso of a third. Isotopic analysis of the bones confirmed that the remains of three different people had been assembled into one complete skeleton (1). The donors of these bones did not necessarily all die at the same time, however. A series of scientific analyses revealed that, after death, the male remains had begun to decay but were then preserved, probably by immersion in an acidic environment such as a peat bog, for at least a few months before the resulting mummies were retrieved, dried and stored prior to the mix-and-match burial.

There were also signs that the adult female remains had been manipulated before burial. Like the male skeleton, the female had undergone a preservation process, albeit sooner after death because the remains showed no signs of decay before mummification. Her left leg had been forcibly broken at least several months after her death, and her knee had been detached and buried at a separate site. The distal end of her right radius was missing altogether. She was found holding in her hands her upper incisors—left incisors in her left hand and right incisors in her right hand.

Was this female skeleton also a composite?

Visual inspection and isotopic analysis of the female skeleton were inconclusive, so the scientists turned to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis to arrive at an answer. Mitochondrial DNA is present at several thousand copies per cell, unlike single-copy nuclear DNA, and is more likely to survive in sufficient quantity for analysis. Scientists extracted DNA from several bones, including the skull, femur and humerus, and a single tooth from the jawbone, then sequenced the mtDNA and compared the sequence to the Cambridge Reference Sequence to identify any polymorphisms that would help differentiate the bone donors. The mtDNA evidence revealed that this skeleton was also a composite composed of at least three individuals and that these individuals were not related through the maternal lineage (2).

Unfortunately, DNA cannot tell us why. We are left to wonder why these ancient people would preserve these remains, disarticulate the skeletons, recombine them, then bury them. If these were foundation burials, why were the remains preserved and recombined prior to burial? Since the original discovery, scientists have determined that the burial of the male and female skeletons occurred at least 100 years before the roundhouse construction, weakening the original hypothesis that these were foundation burials. What other hypothesis could explain these facts?

Archaeologists and anthropologists have long known that in many cultures visiting the dead and handling their bones is considered a tie to one’s ancestors. Perhaps, as the authors postulate in their paper, the ancient inhabitants of Cladh Hallan combined the skeletal elements of multiple individuals into one skeleton to try to merge the deceased’s identities and join two or more ancestries into a single lineage. Unfortunately, there are no artifacts or other clues buried with these skeletons to hint as to why the indigenous people exerted such an effort to preserve the remains, disassemble and reassemble the body parts, then carefully arrange the body in the burial pit. Without additional information about these people and their customs, we may never understand.

References

  1. Parker Pearson, M. et al. (2007) Further evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity 81. This can be viewed at: www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/parker312/
  2. Hanna, J. et al. (2012) Ancient DNA typing shows that a Bronze Age mummy is a composite of different skeletons. J. Archaeol. Sci. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.04.030
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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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