Saturday, 3 October 2015

Everyone Needs Their Mummy!

Mummified remains of Britons were preserved by smoking or being placed in peat bogs – a different process to those of ancient Egyptians.
Photograph: Keystone-ZUMA/Rex Features
Source: The Guardian
Mummification was commonplace in Bronze Age Britain | News - University of Seffield.

Need a favour? In dispute with your neighbour over land? Want to adjust the world a little in your favour? No problem; just tell your mummy!

News today that the practice of worshipping bits of old dead patriarch or matriarch which I wrote about a few days ago in the context of the Catholic Church and it's obsession with the body parts of dead 'saints', may predate Christianity by many thousands of years and is just another pagan tradition which was incorporated into Christianity.

A skeleton found in Britain that was mummified during the Bronze Age.
Photo credit: Geoff Morley.
Source: University of Sheffield - News Release.
The study* is the first to provide indications that mummification may have been a wide-spread funerary practise in Britain.

Working with colleagues from the University of Manchester and University College London, Dr Tom Booth analysed skeletons at several Bronze Age burial sites across the UK. The team from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology found that the remains of some ancient Britons are consistent with a prehistoric mummy from northern Yemen and a partially mummified body recovered from a sphagnum peat bog in County Roscommon, Ireland.

Building on a previous study conducted at a single Bronze Age burial site in the Outer Hebrides, Dr Booth used microscopic analysis to compare the bacterial bioerosion of skeletons from various sites across the UK with the bones of the mummified bodies from Yemen and Ireland.

Archaeologists widely agree that the damp British climate is not favourable to organic materials and all prehistoric mummified bodies that may be located in the UK will have lost their preserved tissue if buried outside of a preservative environment such as a bog.


The research team also found that the preservation of Bronze Age skeletons at various sites throughout the UK is different to the preservation of bones dating to all other prehistoric and historic periods, which are generally consistent with natural decomposition. Furthermore, the Sheffield-led researchers also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead.

Dr Booth added, “Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.

“The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period.”*

The research also demonstrates that funerary rituals that we may now regard as exotic, novel and even bizarre were practised commonly for hundreds of years by our predecessors.

*Published in Antiquity, but not available on line at time of writing.

It's a matter for speculation exactly what these mummified bodies were used for or how they fitted into whatever religious beliefs these Bronze Age people had. Maybe they acted as 'conduits' for communicating with the assumed souls of ancestors or through them with deities, just as they are used by Christians today. Maybe they were some sort of totem or memorials to past glory.

“It is highly possible they were curated for some time,” said Tom Booth, an archaeologist who conducted the bone study at the University of Sheffield. “In other cultures they could be kept for ancestor worship, or used as a conduit to speak to the dead.”

In bronze age Britain, the intensification of agriculture and social changes that put more power into the hands of the elite, may have given the mummies a posthumous role in settling land disputes. “Bringing out your dead ancestor who farmed the piece of land is better than producing a land deed,” said Booth, whose work appears in the journal, Antiquity.

Readers may recall that I speculated in Old Dead Gods - Lessons From Silbury Hill about what the skeletons of the people interred in West Kennet Long Barrow were used for since they seem to have been removed regularly then put back. Were these the mummified remains of ancestors?

There is, of course, no biblical basis whatsoever for praying to bits of dead body and it seems indistinguishable from idolatry so what seems to have happened is that, rather than abandon these old, magical ancestors, the Christian Church simply accommodated this form of ancestor worship into the 'faith' just as it incorporated the old local gods and turned them into the 'saints' we see in modern place-names all over Europe, as any visitor to Wales, France or Spain will notice.

Incidentally, did you know that a lot of early churches were built on the site of pagan holy wells and the font is the representation of that well, complete with the magical holy water?

Converting their religion, not the people, was a common tactic of early missionaries. When he was sent to Britain as a missionary in 595 CE, St Augustine of Canterbury was reputedly told by Pope Gregory to convert their religion, not the people. There is also an account of St Patrick calling a meeting of local petty kings in Ireland to go through the Celtic Behon Law and keep anything which could be squared with the Bible but throw out anything which didn't. One of the casualties of this process, agreed by the exclusively male meeting, was that women should no longer be allowed to hold positions of power over men, to own property or to divorce their husbands.

Equal human rights for women was definitely un-Christian so out it went, but that holy well that's been supplying water and magical cures for everything since time immemorial? That was obviously made when Saint Thingumy, on a visit from Jerusalem, probably fresh from chatting with Saint Peter, kicked a stone, so that can stay. We'll build a church near by in his honour!

It's amusing to think that what Christians, of whichever of the multifarious sects they belong to, believe is the one true faith, is just an amalgam of old pagan superstitions onto which the myth of yet another dead founder has been grafted and that it differs little from ancestor worship as practised in the Bronze Age.

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