10. Ancestor worship enjoyed a renaissance in Bronze Age Britain when people began to mummify their dead -at the same time as the Ancient Egyptians.
By the Bronze Age, ancestor worship seemed to be back in vogue in Britain. However, instead of stripping the flesh off their significant deceased, Bronze Age Britains took up a practice more usually associated with ancient Egypt: mummification. It seems that Britons and the Egyptians began practising mummification at the same time- albeit using different methods. For although the Egyptians preserved their mummies using salt, spices and bandages, the British were mummifying their dead by immersing them in a peat bog, or, in some cases by smoking and drying out the corpses.
People have long recognised the preservative properties of heat and smoke in food preservation. What is less well known is that ancient Britains also used bogs as larders. Archaeologists have found the kegs of butter perfectly preserved in many British bogs. Indicating the Ancient British were using peat-bogs to extend the shelf life of a valuable commodity. So it was logical they apply the same method to preserve their equally valued dead.
Dr Tom Booth of Sheffield University has examined several burial sites across the extent of England and as far north as Cladh Hallan in the eastern isles of Scotland. Although only skeletons remained, analysis of the bones in 16 cases identified them as mummified. Bones left to decay naturally are quickly attacked by bacteria and so begin to deteriorate rapidly. However, the process of mummification significantly slows down this process. The 16 cases showed the same slow rate of decay as their Egyptian counterparts. These remains prove that even though soil conditions after burial caused their flesh to decay, someone initially mummified the bodies.
Fourteen of the bodies showed signs of being preserved in a peat bog while heat and smoke mummified two others. Booth believes the mummified corpses were ‘stored ‘ above ground before burial- in the case of the Scottish mummies for several hundred years. The mummies could have been used by their descendants to stake a claim to ancestral lands. However, mummification and delayed burial could also have been part of the prolonged burial rites of high-status individuals. Either way, this particular burial ritual seems to have died out by the end of the Bronze Age. Mummification of human remains, however, continued into the Iron Age in a much different sacred context.