Why Did Ancient Scots Prepare ‘Frankenstein’ Mummies?

November 20, 2023

In 2001, a team of archaeologists found a pair of skeletons at an archaeological site on the island of South Uist off the coast of Scotland. At first, it appeared to be a typical Bronze Age discovery, but the researchers soon discovered that the finding was far from normal. While hearing the term “mummies” usually makes us think back to ancient Egypt, in this case the archaeologists had stumbled on what have become known as Frankenstein mummies.

Why Did Ancient Scots Prepare ‘Frankenstein’ Mummies?

The Cladh Hallan archaeological site where the Frankenstein mummies were unearthed. (Toxic Lab / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Finding the Frankenstein Mummies

Discovered at the archaeological site of Cladh Hallan, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, the skeletons, one male and one female, were buried in the fetal position. Initial tests revealed that the male had died in around 1600 BC and the female had died in approximately 1300 BC. However, the scientists were perplexed at some of the characteristics of the remains, for example the fact that the skeletons were very highly flexed, so they conducted further analyses.

To their astonishment, they found that although the male had died in around 1600 BC, he had not been buried until a full six centuries later, in around 1000 BC. Similarly, the female was not buried until 300 years after her death. This was highly unusual since any skeletons left unburied for that length of time would have ended up as just a pile of bones.

Archaeologists have discovered remains of what they believe to be ritual activity at the Cladh Hallan site. The remains of sacrificed animals, a sheep and two dogs,

The Only Prehistoric Mummies in Great Britain

At closer inspection, the research team discovered that the bodies had once been preserved in peat bogs, which permanently held the skeletons together. Using modern forensic techniques, it was found that the outer 2mm of the bone had been demineralized, which is consistent with preservation caused by submersion in a peat bog for between 6 and 18 months. The discovery was unique because it is the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found.

Evidence suggests that the bog bodies were purposely preserved and later retrieved from the bog and set up inside a dwelling, presumably having religious significance. Sheffield University Professor, Mike Parker Pearson believes the mummies played an important part in their society, and as part of ancestral worship, may have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.

Why Did Ancient Scots Prepare ‘Frankenstein’ Mummies?

The Frankenstein mummies were discovered under one of the dwellings excavated at Cladh Hallan in South Ulst. The University of the Highlands and Islands created an app which allows visitors to visualize the historic landscape using their phone. (UHI)

Building Bodies: Why Are They Called Frankenstein Mummies?

However, the story did not end here, because a decade later, another incredibly finding was made. Further DNA examination of the remains led to the startling discovery that the two skeletons were actually made up of body parts from six different individuals!

In the male skeleton, the torso, skull and neck, and lower jaw belonged to three separate men. Meanwhile, the female skeleton is a composite formed from a male skull, a female torso, and the arm of a third person whose gender had not been determined.

Carbon dating revealed that the skull of the “female” mummy is 50 to 200 years older than the torso. It appears that the mummies were made up of parts from people in the same families and then put together like a jigsaw to make it look like they were just one person.

Why Did Ancient Scots Prepare ‘Frankenstein’ Mummies?

The DNA tests prove that the Frankenstein mummies are composite of different Skeletons. Diagram showing the parts that make up the male mummy. The blue shows parts from an adult male dating to 1600 BC, the yellow a male from 1500 to 1400 BC, and the red indicating parts from an adult male dating back to between 1440 to 1360 BC. (Bullenwächter / CC BY-SA 3.0)

But, Why Make Frankenstein Mummies?

Archaeologists have no idea why the remains were mummified and then mixed together. However, Parker Pearson believes that the mixing of remains of the Frankenstein mummies was done to combine different ancestries of families to create a “symbolic ancestor” that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages. These Frankenstein mummies could even have been used to “exert rights over land, resources and power,” highlights Tom Booth in The Conversation. “These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people’s body parts seems to be a deliberate act,” he said.

However, Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, is more cynical and believes that the Bronze Age people of South Uist were just practical: “Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on.” Kerri Brown, an ancient DNA specialist who worked on the analysis of the Frankenstein mummies, this is what she dubs a prehistoric “spare part surgery.”