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Composite mummies
September 24, 2012 8:57 PM   Subscribe

"...scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish "bog bodies" are actually made from the remains of six people."
posted by 445supermag (64 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I saw this and was thoroughly impressed, because it suggests a ritual that has been completely lost to us. It reminded me of the Chinchorro mummies -- not because any of them were composites, to my knowledge, but because they were apparently part of an ancestor cult.

(Yes, it's midnight. Time for bed. Chinchorro mummies, everyone! Don't let the bedbugs bite!)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:02 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


So they're Frankensteins?
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Funny, the part before the ... in the pull quote from Nat Geo is: "In a "eureka" moment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein", I just couldn't put something so cheesy in a fpp.
posted by 445supermag at 9:08 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


So they're Frankensteins?

No, but they knew one.
posted by pompomtom at 9:10 PM on September 24, 2012 [27 favorites]


Allow me to put aside all my thoughtful, trained dispassionate cultural relativism and shudder, "eewwwwww." Just for a minute.

t suggests a ritual that has been completely lost to us

Yes...this is true.
posted by Miko at 9:19 PM on September 24, 2012


According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the mummies—a male and a female—were assembled from various body parts, although the purpose of the gruesome composites is likely lost to history.

WHAT
THE
FUCK
MATT
posted by KokuRyu at 9:25 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Till death do you....merge?
posted by sendai sleep master at 9:30 PM on September 24, 2012


Is it still the perfect murder if people eventually discover the bodies?
posted by restless_nomad at 9:30 PM on September 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


Human Centipede III - Back to the Bog
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:33 PM on September 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


Surprise!
posted by TimeStove at 9:34 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is interesting. Weird, but definitely worth knowing.
posted by Vysharra at 9:38 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be simplest to assume that the bones were interred as bones and one femur looks pretty much like another femur?

I mean one could come up with a lot of explanations for Sedlec Ossuary, but the truth - that it just kind of became the in place for destination funerals and, once they ran out of plots, somebody got all Martha Stewart about things is, when you come down to it, kind of boring, but hardly ritualistic.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


You don't think obsessive decorating is ritualistic?
posted by gingerest at 9:44 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Femur? I hardly know ur!
posted by sendai sleep master at 9:45 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I fucking love finds like this.

The human brain, as it is structured, hasn't changed much in the last ten thousand years or so. It is this large, creative, sensory organ that allows for these really complicated thought processes, reasoning, interpretation, and communication.

What has made the human society evolve faster than our brains is that we now have recorded forms of communication. Things that are hard to wipe out with plague, war, famine or cultural appropriation.

This bodies could have represented one groups practices over hundreds of years, which means being able to stay in one place, or record and communicate the location of the place to return to. Which means a group of people holding to some specific set of knowledge and information passed down verbally or through some other means to survive the 300-600 period of time, yet not make it to modern day in some form of artifact. Or it means that multiple groups of people had passed through the same area, maybe one group discovering the bodies and wanting to rebury them as singular whole bodies out of respect (or disrespect) to the groups that originally buried them.

These aren't difficult cultural practices for us to imagine isolated, untouched by 'modern society' groups doing today, but for some reason, we assume that a group of people six thousand years ago, with the same brains as we have today (just not iPhones and hundreds of years of previous research recorded for us) somehow can't figure out how to build a pyramid and other crazy conspiracies.

It is shit like this that makes me go "man, humans are fucking complicated beasts."
posted by mrzarquon at 9:48 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Or someone stumbled over an old mass gravesite or pile of bones somewhere and was all "we should give these people a proper burial!" and just sort of mixed parts together. That seems like a much more likely explanation.
posted by fshgrl at 9:51 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Everything old is new again.
posted by mazola at 9:54 PM on September 24, 2012


across europe, femurs by the thousands stir in catacombs deep
posted by mwhybark at 10:14 PM on September 24, 2012


Or someone stumbled over an old mass gravesite or pile of bones somewhere and was all "we should give these people a proper burial!" and just sort of mixed parts together. That seems like a much more likely explanation.

Bog people aren't a pile of bones, and generally haven't been in a grave at all. They are generally fresh bodies (or apparently assembled parts of bodies) which are submerged in peat bogs and remain relatively undecomposed due to the nature of their interment.
posted by hippybear at 10:17 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Freshers week ain't what it used to be.
posted by arcticseal at 10:21 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Wouldn't it be simplest to assume that the bones were interred as bones and one femur looks pretty much like another femur? "

From the way that bogs preserve soft tissue, they can tell that the parts still had flesh on them when they were manipulated, and that they were specifically posed.
posted by klangklangston at 10:49 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


> Or someone stumbled over an old mass gravesite or pile of bones somewhere and was all "we should give these people a proper burial!" and just sort of mixed parts together. That seems like a much more likely explanation.

I don't know, if it was meant as a proper burial for a mass grave, it would have been more than two bodies (one of which was composed of at least six separate individuals). I don't think they mentioned finding other bodies around these, just that the bodies were made up of individual parts from different bodies.

There is more intention here than just "we should neaten up this pile of bones." Besides the fact that these would not have been piles of bones, but collections of preserved, flesh covered bodies. They may have wanted to make a symbolic gesture so found the best parts and made two bodies (maybe there are more, we haven't found them yet though), but at a location far away from the actual grave.

Touched on in the first link is the idea that this may have come out of some lineage / ancestry worship practice, where you have multiple clans of people who may have united at one point, and as a way to bind their separate lineages actually contributed pieces of their preserved ancestors.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:58 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be a brutal murder and and even horrific act of chopping of the bodies and then assembling them giving the shape of a complete man. WTF
posted by molisk at 11:18 PM on September 24, 2012


Well, that's not icky at all.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:27 PM on September 24, 2012


I'm not okay with this.
posted by No-sword at 11:37 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought a lot of the 'bog people' had indications they had been ritually sacrificed. This would seem to indicate that a lot more was involved than previously thought.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:41 PM on September 24, 2012


A cynical theory, study author Brown said, assumes that the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan were just eminently practical: "Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on."

Cynical? Oh I don't know sounds like almost every single poorly managed contract job since always.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:42 PM on September 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


Bog body (" bog bodies have retained their skin and internal organs due to the unusual conditions of the surrounding area")
Mummy. (" skin and organs have been preserved by either intentional or incidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold (ice mummies), very low humidity, or lack of air ")
The title of the scientific article in the first link: Bronze Age Skeletons Composites of Multiple Individuals.
I guess skeletons were considered not sexy enough.
posted by hat_eater at 11:54 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've heard the theory that the people put in the bogs were being punished by having their souls trapped in a kind of limbo from which they could neither pass on to the afterlife nor return to haunt the living. By this theory, mixing their body parts might have been a way to further confuse and trap the souls of the condemned.
posted by homunculus at 11:55 PM on September 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


Interesting what makes it to the news and how the focus of an excavation changes or evolves with time. The initial paper (claiming the male skeleton was composed of bones from 3 individuals rather than 6) was published in 2007 but the exciting discovery at the time, and in 2005 as well, seemed to be the evidence for mummification.

Also, now I need to find this: KNÜSEL, C.J. & A.K. OUTRAM. 2006. Fragmentation of the body: comestibles, compost, or customary rite?, in R. Gowland & C. Knüsel (ed.) Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains: 253-78. Oxford: Oxbow Books
posted by Marauding Ennui at 12:01 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


What if some pranksters from thousands of years ago thought "Hey...lets fuck with someone's head far into the future!" and mixed and matched some random dead bodies? I'd say they get points for creativity.
posted by MultiFaceted at 12:02 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


3,000-year-old Scottish "bog bodies" are actually made from the remains of six people."

You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hatcher. You've gotta tell them! "Bog bodies" is people! We've gotta stop them somehow!

They're made of people!
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:08 AM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


The bodies had been buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death.

Based on the condition and structures of the skeletons, scientists had previously determined that the bodies had been placed in a peat bog just long enough to preserve them and then removed. The skeletons were then reburied hundreds of years later.


So the sequence of events is that
1. They died naturally, as far as we can tell. We don't see damage done to the remains.
2. They were thrown into a bog but just long enough to preserve them. Incidental or intentional preservation?
3. They were removed from the bog and reburied.
4. 300 to 600 years later, they were dug up and reburied with mix-and-match parts arranged in fetal position.

Something like that?

So
1. Bodies were thrown into a bog for unknown reasons (punishment? ritual? convenience?).
2. Bodies were removed from a bog for unknown reasons (change in bog management?) and stuck in the ground instead.
3. Long after, random bits of (anonymous?) bodies were dug up and dissociated (how? why? disturbed during prehistoric construction? intentional desecration?) but then mixed together (intentionally? best effort?) and reburied in the fetal position (according to that later time's standards for respect for the dead? or intentionally disrespectful?).

Lots of fun.
posted by pracowity at 2:27 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


the idea that this may have come out of some lineage / ancestry worship practice, where you have multiple clans of people who may have united at one point, and as a way to bind their separate lineages actually contributed pieces of their preserved ancestors.

That idea seems so insane it would be more plausible to assume their religion just required the mixing up of bodies, mad as that in itself would be.

After all, it could only really happen once. There's not going to be a continuous supply of dead ancestors from different lineages to mix up on an ongoing basis (because once the tribes have joined there's only one mixed heritage). So you have to assume that this tribe, which most unusually regarded itself as an equal mixture of lineages, rather than as pure-bloods or as winners and conquered, found itself in a position where a good number of ancestors from at least two lineages happened coincidentally to have been well preserved and were known to be available, and then came up with the one-off idea, which could not have been part of any prior tradition, that they should re-bury said sets of ancestors, not just together, but intermingled, and not just intermingled but carefully put together to construct new composite individuals?

That just doesn't seem to attain plausibility compared even with a pointless body-mixing tradition. 'Later culture meant well, fucked up' has it for me.
posted by Segundus at 2:53 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


So they're Frankensteins?

No, but they knew one.


That's MacFrankenstein, ya greet bampot.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:48 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Modern cultural 'ickiness' is completely inappropriate here.

This is a completely different culture, with a completely different relationship to the world and outlook on life than we have. Cladh Hallan is very interesting (good overview here) but it's not isolated. Orkney, another Scottish archipelago gives an incredible insight into Neolithic/Bronze age culture.

Tomb of the Eagles is both a rivetting story of a farmer's determination, and a fascinating exploration of neolithic society.

Dont think it's all about the past though. Some of the most exciting discoveries are happening right now;

Banks Tomb is still being explored.

The Ness of Brodgar is just awesome. Ancient secrets, sacred space, the key to understanding every stone circle?
posted by BadMiker at 3:51 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Some of these sacred landscapes were utilised and added to over thousands of years, so there's no reason that the people of one period necessarily carried out the same ceremonies or even had much more concept than we did of what had been going on earlier.

Further, there is a great deal more to find. Although the neolithic landscape of Orkney gets a lot of attention - the Ness of Brodgar dig is just the most high profile - and rising sea levels have covered a lot of coastal areas that we know have considerable archaeology. And Shetland is still largely untouched: the islands are covered in peat with who knows what underneath.

Yet further, new techniques are advancing at speed. I'm heartened by the way the UK archaeo establishment has been capable of adapting to amateur input, with the metal detectorists gradually losing some of their stigma, and who knows what tools may become available via mobile phones with their massive processing and sensor arrays.

We're in a golden age of astronomy. The signs are the same may be happening for archaeology.
posted by Devonian at 4:12 AM on September 25, 2012


In the year 1000BC, a distant ancestor of the Ringling Bros. went out of business, and had to do something with the Banshee of the Bog.
posted by Malor at 4:34 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought a lot of the 'bog people' had indications they had been ritually sacrificed.

I've seen a few bog people in museums, one of which still had a noose around his or her neck. I don't know if that's the same as "ritually sacrificed," but it didn't look like a peaceful death.
posted by Forktine at 4:40 AM on September 25, 2012


Touched on in the first link is the idea that this may have come out of some lineage / ancestry worship practice, where you have multiple clans of people who may have united at one point, and as a way to bind their separate lineages actually contributed pieces of their preserved ancestors.

Quilt People! or would that be people quilt?

I just picture the old ladies of the tribe sitting around, talking about making a wedding gift for King's son but bored with their usual quilting, "If I have to do another Wedding Ring out of wolf skin I'll scream. What I wouldn't give for a nice bundle of mixed media-- something unexpected, something with a modern edge!"
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:47 AM on September 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


"In a "eureka" moment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein"

Or was it an "IT'S ALIIIIVE!" moment worthy of Archimedes?
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:47 AM on September 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't know a lot about ancient burial rituals and practices, but I do know I'd have to know a lot more about ancient burial rituals and practices before I decided that this wasn't plausible. That it's not what it looks like has to remain in the pool of possibilities, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. Humans have done plenty things as weird or weirder over the milennia.
posted by Miko at 5:50 AM on September 25, 2012


t suggests a ritual that has been completely lost to us


I'm okay with this.
posted by ocschwar at 6:51 AM on September 25, 2012


Fascinating and creepy, but a lot of things we do today are equally creepy when you stop to think about them (and would probably be significantly creepier to a 3,000 year old Scot).
posted by immlass at 6:55 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


So is it just the good parts, or did they keep those?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:02 AM on September 25, 2012


it suggests a ritual that has been completely lost to us

Not completely lost. This macabre ritual remains with us today in the form of Mr. Potato Head.
posted by chambers at 7:03 AM on September 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ten thousand years hence:


1. Bodies were thrown into a bog for unknown reasons (punishment? ritual? convenience?).
2. Bodies were removed from a bog for unknown reasons (change in bog management?) and stuck in the ground instead.
3. Long after, random bits of (anonymous?) bodies were dug up and dissociated (how? why? disturbed during prehistoric construction? intentional desecration?) but then mixed together (intentionally? best effort?) and reburied in the fetal position (according to that later time's standards for respect for the dead? or intentionally disrespectful?).

4. Eons later the bodies were disinterred yet again whereupon further interventions of unknown purpose were performed. Subsequently they appear to have been placed on public display for several decades (as suggested by the shards of Early Silicon Age glass found all about them -- the refractive "halos" some sharers in the infosphere refer to. When whole, these would have been protective glass tombs that would have simultaneously preserved the remains while also allowing for their veneration.).

5. Bodies were eventually reclaimed by the earth, as all bodies must, -- or more precisely by the sea and the earth -- as the site succumbed to Waterrise, and the Mud Flat Macabres were interred again in their dank preservative.
posted by notyou at 7:10 AM on September 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


Now they're saying they've found chicken and duck skeletons inside.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:11 AM on September 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't know a lot about ancient burial rituals and practices, but I do know I'd have to know a lot more about ancient burial rituals and practices before I decided that this wasn't plausible. That it's not what it looks like has to remain in the pool of possibilities, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. Humans have done plenty things as weird or weirder over the milennia.
Well, it's been known for a long time that in these areas bog burials was only a part of a larger way of dealing with the dead. The local inhabitants were well aware of the bog's ability to preserve the flesh of bodies, and so they would bury their newly-dead in the bog and leave them for a few years. However, what came next is the most interesting part.

The bog bodies were eventually dug out of the bog, and taken back to the village or other rightful place and deposited there. The bodies--darkened and shrivelled, but still recognizably human--were effectively on display. Some seem to have been kept thus for maybe hundreds of years, as visible and clear reminder of ancestors. It was only at some specific point--I'm not sure we know why--that such bodies were then finally buried. This is what these two bodies represent: bog-preserved ancestors finally buried.

The mixing and matching of body parts could well have happened at any time in those hundreds of years that the bodies were on display. It could well be that clans "traded" parts when significant intermarriage happened, and that the other halves are buried together somewhere else. It could also be that a high-venerated ancestor lost their hands or body through rotting, and that a stand-in body part was found from elsewhere, rather than having to bury the whole body.

And that's really the most interesting question: is this mixing a ritual practice that was quite normally undertaken and part of ancestor worship, or was it a more makeshift answer to a problem? If more bodies are tested and it turns out to be the former, then we have a really brilliant insight into how such bodies were seen, and also into the though-world of the folk who lived back then.
posted by Jehan at 7:13 AM on September 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


The reactions here are interesting. I'm kind of surprised by how many people are disturbed by this. I don't see how this is any more bizarre than embalming. The creation of a male & female uber-ancestor makes a certain type of sense if ancestor worship was indeed the motivation. Assuming that the folks these mummies were composited from died of unplanned causes (which is a rather large assumption), I actually find this less disturbing than the Irish bog men.
posted by smirkette at 7:14 AM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


People are always up to something. In less distant times, the composer Haydn was buried with someone else's head.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:21 AM on September 25, 2012


In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people... No one knows who they were, or what they were doing.
posted by phl at 8:04 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kid Charlemagne: Wouldn't it be simplest to assume that the bones were interred as bones and one femur looks pretty much like another femur?
Not really. The bones show evidence of having been buried in a bog, then dug up after the soft tissues dissolved but before substantial bone loss occurred.

Then bones from multiple bodies were positioned into a reasonable facsimile of a normal, undisturbed human skeletal burial.

It may not be ritualistic. It may be a case of, "Oh, dear, we seem to have gotten this bag of bones all jumbled up! Oh, well, fuck it. Who's ever gonna know?"

Or, "Honored ancestor Bubba is missing his pelvis! You fool! Now how can he rest?" "No problem! I'll just go back and get another..."

So, it's pretty clear there was an involved funereal custom involved, requiring months or years of post-mortem planning. Why the bones mismatch is open to debate... and of course, the first thing suggested is "ritual".
posted by IAmBroom at 8:23 AM on September 25, 2012


IAmBroom, the article is a bit ambiguous, but I'm pretty sure they're saying the composite bodies were created before they decomposed into skeletons. The soft tissue was preserved by the peat bog, and I think the implication is that final decomposition only occurred once they were re-buried where they have now been found.

I may be misreading it though.
posted by phl at 8:51 AM on September 25, 2012


Metafilter:Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:57 AM on September 25, 2012


The Nat Geo article says,
When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down.
So there would appear to have been soft tissue remaining at the point, 300 to 600 years after death, that they were reburied. Maybe this is the confusion between the mention of mummies and skeletons - they were kept as mummies for several hundred years and then decomposed into skeletons when buried.
posted by XMLicious at 9:04 AM on September 25, 2012


"That idea seems so insane it would be more plausible to assume their religion just required the mixing up of bodies, mad as that in itself would be.

After all, it could only really happen once. There's not going to be a continuous supply of dead ancestors from different lineages to mix up on an ongoing basis (because once the tribes have joined there's only one mixed heritage). So you have to assume that this tribe, which most unusually regarded itself as an equal mixture of lineages, rather than as pure-bloods or as winners and conquered, found itself in a position where a good number of ancestors from at least two lineages happened coincidentally to have been well preserved and were known to be available, and then came up with the one-off idea, which could not have been part of any prior tradition, that they should re-bury said sets of ancestors, not just together, but intermingled, and not just intermingled but carefully put together to construct new composite individuals?
"

Sorry dude, all of your objections are kinda bunk.

If people were into ancestor worship and kept their bog mummies around, yeah, there's a fairly continuous supply. An equal mixture of lineages? That's what we call a wedding. And this doesn't have to be a one-off at all — absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Your mixed up body bag theory doesn't seem to conform to the evidence at the site, and in the articles they lay out their case for why they believe what they do.
posted by klangklangston at 9:22 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


and rising sea levels have covered a lot of coastal areas that we know have considerable archaeology.

Hidden Doggerland underworld uncovered in North Sea
posted by homunculus at 9:31 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps enemies had desecrated the burial site, scattering the remains, and later people were just trying to put their ancestors back together as well as they could.
posted by hat_eater at 11:32 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe individuality really didnt matter. Once the bodies were given to the bog, they were all transformed; parts were recovered at random and reassembled into a composite guardian.

I cannot find the reference but I read somewhere that the bones have evidence of smoke; suggesting they were kept in the beams of a house. Literally watching over.

It's the emphasis on continuity that I find remarkeable; the worship of the past, the will to keep things unchanging. It appears to have been a pretty stable, peaceful society but I wonder how repressive it was? "Do as your ancestors did." Dont change, dont innovate. The idea of progress, which we value so highly, would have been an anathema.

You'd have thought that such a controlling society would end in the flames of revolution but, after some 800 years of constant, but evolving use, the central temple at Brodgar appears to have been the site of a great big party, before being buried and abandoned.
posted by BadMiker at 12:35 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


If people were into ancestor worship and kept their bog mummies around, yeah, there's a fairly continuous supply. An equal mixture of lineages? That's what we call a wedding.

I was imagining this as a wedding ritual too.

The wedding party assembles a complete male and female from the lineages of the wife and husband and buries them in the earthen soil of the floor of their new house say (weren't they recovered from an '11th Century round house'?) or puts the bones up in rafters under some other circumstance as BadMiker suggests.

Weddings and mixed children were the instruments of choice to extinguish feuds (as witness Njal's Saga) and this could be an aspect of that as well as ancestor worship.
posted by jamjam at 1:42 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


One more spooky item left out of the articles: the woman was clutching her eye teeth, one in each hand. Meaning?

Jehan has the best breakdown of the probable sequence of events. These bodies were buried under house posts. There must have been some kind of social upheaval or religious reformation to cause these people to bury the bodies they had kept (on display?) for centuries.
posted by CCBC at 2:50 PM on September 25, 2012


(weren't they recovered from an '11th Century round house'?)

The "3,000-year-old" bit would seem to indicate they're talking about the 11th century BC rather than anywhere in the vicinity of the Icelandic Sagas.
posted by XMLicious at 6:00 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


By this theory, mixing their body parts might have been a way to further confuse and trap the souls of the condemned.

Like bending their swords.
posted by homunculus at 10:04 PM on October 10, 2012


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