The first clues
A team of archaeologists, led by Dr Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, has recently found the remains of what are believed to be two mummified Bronze Age bodies, buried under the floor of a prehistoric house at Cladh Hallan on the Hebridean Island of South Uist. The house in which the mummy skeletons were buried was part of a unique Bronze Age complex, which is as mysterious as the preserved corpses that were buried there.
The find is the first evidence of deliberate mummification carried out in ancient times ever found in Britain - and is without doubt one of the most important archaeological discoveries made in recent years.
No mummified body tissue had survived - so it was not immediately obvious to the excavators what they had found, when they first came across two skeletons at Cladh Hallan. They did, however, think the skeletons looked very unusual, being very highly flexed, like Peruvian mummies.
Several months of detailed scientific tests followed, including radio carbon dating of the bones and of other materials from the site. The first suggestion that the skeletons had actually come from mummified bodies arose when the radio carbon dates came back from the laboratory.
To the astonishment of the archaeologists, they saw that one individual (a male) had died in around 1,600 BC - but had been buried a full six centuries later, in around 1,000 BC. What is more, a second individual (a female) had died in around 1,300 BC - and had had to wait 300 years before being interred.
The archaeologists thought this strange. They had never encountered anything like it before. If the skeletons had been left unburied for 600 or 300 years they would have ended up as just a pile of bones. It seemed that perhaps in some way the sinews and skin had been deliberately preserved, to permanently hold the skeletons together. The researchers began to wonder whether they had come across Britain's first mummies.
Next came the second piece of startling evidence. If indeed the uncovered bones had once belonged to mummified bodies, then how had the mummification been carried out? Bearing in mind the technologies and resources available in Britain during the Bronze Age, there were three main options.