Mystery at Cladh Hallan: Who Were the Scottish “Frankenstein” Mummies?

Cladh Hallan, where the composite skeletons were found. "Bronze Age Settlement - - 1340839" by Anne Burgess. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -

Cladh Hallan, where the composite skeletons were found.
“Bronze Age Settlement – – 1340839” by Anne Burgess. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

Mummification of various forms is a remarkably consistent feature of many cultures across history. Sometimes this form of preservation comes with an elaborate religious practice, such as the Egyptian belief that mummifying the body and providing it with funeral goods it could use in the afterlife would ensure that the deceased would have happiness in the next world. In other cases, mummification occurred largely by accident, a result of unrelated rituals or perhaps murder. This is the case, it is believed anyway, for many bog mummies. Some were likely killed in ritual murders performed for religious reasons, while many were victims of accidents or more “run of the mill” murders.

Until recently, the mummies of Europe’s distant past fell into the category of accidental mummies. More and more evidence is coming to light that points to deliberate mummification, but with a bizarre twist unique to its time and place in history. Such evidence surfaced in 2001 at Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. A pair of 3,000 year old skeletons, one male and one female, were found buried in the fetal position. They showed evidence of preservation; it is believed that they were initially preserved in nearby peat bogs, before eventually being retrieved and buried in soil, where their bodies decomposed, leaving bones behind. One quirk of bogs is that they preserve flesh and soft tissues well, because they provide an anaerobic environment that prevents microbes from growing. However, bogs are bad at preserving bones because they are acidic, so most bog mummies are found with soft or nearly none existent bones. Clearly, the local people knew enough about the nature of the bogs to let bodies sit long enough to be preserved, but not so long that their bones turned to mush.

But these mummies contained one more secret, one that is bizarre and unprecedented in the British Isles and Northern Europe. Both skeletons were composites. The torso, skull, and neck of the male skeleton belong to three separate males. The skull, torso, and arm of the female skeleton also belonged to three separate people. Oddly enough, the skull on the female skeleton belonged to a male, and was added as late as 200 years after the body was first interred.

The people of Bronze Age Scotland left no written records, so the reasoning behind this bizarre practice is lost to history. Archeologists can only speculate. Perhaps the mixing of the bodies was a symbolic means of merging family lines and bringing together clans.

These composite skeletons are remnants from a dim period of history, where the rituals were strange and appalling to modern eyes. The next question is whether this practice was widespread, or if it was a quirk of this region of Scotland. No one knows for certain, because typically DNA tests are only done on one part of ancient remains to preserve the sample. A closer examination and sampling from more parts of ancient skeletons could reveal more composite bodies in the future.