Frankenstein’s Bog-Body Monsters

3,000-year-old “bog bodies”, dug up over a decade ago in Scotland, have recently been found to be composed of six different people’s body parts. Not so original, were you Dr. Frankenstein?

It seems that the explanation of why these bodies were pieced together will forever be lost in time. But the details that have been discovered are like an archaeologist’s wet dream.

Here’s a run down of what they’ve figured out: two bodies, one male, one female. The female one had a jaw that didn’t fit into the rest of the skull, so they did some DNA testing and found out that the jawbone, the arm, the skull and the leg all came from different, genetically unrelated people (at least, they didn’t have the same mother).

Isotopic dating showed that the female body’s parts are all from about the same time period. The male’s, however, comes from people who died a few hundred years apart.

How, you might ask? It would seem the ancient people knew how to dip the body in the bog just long enough to let the high-acid, low-oxygen environment preserve the organic materials. However, they must have subsequently removed the bodies before the high acidity broke down the calcium-based bones.

So why would they go through all the effort? Terry Brown, the professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, who sampled the DNA in the first place, thinks the reasoning is practical: the head dropped off so another had to be stuck on. It’s the image of the mummy that was important, not the actual person inside. He cites Chinchorro mummies from the Chilean Andes that were reinforced with grass and sticks and animal hair.

Another theory is that it was a symbolic gesture to create an ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages.

I studied archaeology because I liked the mystery of it all (same reason I studied physics – in the end I’m a total fiction writer). So the idea that it was practical is just distasteful to my fanciful mind. I much prefer to think there was a religious element – like the different body parts are in fact parts of prophets to some long-forgotten religion, and they thought that each prophet had to donate some particular limb after their death towards the mummy and once it was complete, their god would possess it and come amongst its children.

Of course, I have like zero backing for that theory, but I like it all the same. The beauty of incredible ancient discoveries – no one really knows, and any story is a good story.

[Via National Geographic & The Mary Sue | Photograph by Mike Parker Pearson, University of Sheffield]

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