Lost excavation photographs reveal 8,000-year-old mummified remains from Europe

(ORDO NEWS) — The 8,000-year-old remains found in the Sado Valley in Portugal in 1960 and 1962 provided the basis for a new approach to the analysis of old remains, as new methods showed that they may represent the oldest mummies in Europe.

This approach allowed the researchers to reconstruct the position of the 13 people found at the site and uncover indications that the two bodies may have been prepared – or “cured” – before burial.

The results of the study of hunter-gatherer burials were published in the European Journal of Archeology. The study combined archeotanatology – an approach that views the spatial distribution of bones through the lens of how the human body decomposes – with modern human decomposition experiments to re-evaluate remains found in the Sado Valley in the 1960s.

The researchers were able to effectively travel back in time and look at the remains at the time they were discovered, as new photographs emerged from the original excavations.

The treasure trove of photographs allowed researchers to return to the original finds with new methods of interpretation and to reconstruct the spatial arrangement of almost all of the remains.

Lost excavation photographs reveal 8 000 year old mummified remains from Europe 2

They could then work backwards to establish a burial practice that would allow them to take their final resting places, given how the human body decays as it decays.

Their interpretation showed that the corpses were buried before some of the weak joints began to decompose. Moreover, they seem to have retained their anatomical integrity remarkably well, with many lying in a crouched position with their legs pressed against their buttocks.

Such contracted postures indicate “clumping”, hypercontraction of the body during decomposition. Some of them were so tightly packed that the researchers suspect that tight wraps or bindings may have been used to keep the body compact.

Evidence of mummification came from two of the most hyperflexible remains, whose bones remained so firmly in place that they are thought to be indicative of some form of pre-burial processing. Areas like the feet are among the first to decay, even in filled graves, but this was not the case with these two specimens.

“Decomposition of the body in situ typically results in activity such as bloating followed by the formation of significant empty spaces … as soft tissue disappears,” the study authors write. “In filled primary burials, dissected bones such as [fingers] were often moved into such empty spaces.”

The fact that the bones held their positions so well, they say, indicates that the bodies were not placed in the ground as fresh corpses, but in a dried state, as occurs in mummification. Practices such as body wrapping and healing are viable explanations for the two individual burials.

Lost excavation photographs reveal 8 000 year old mummified remains from Europe 3

Using modern cadavers, the researchers were able to see how wrapping and desiccation can contribute to a hyperflexed body position, as soft tissue contraction allows for increased flexion. They conducted controlled natural mummification of corpses both above ground and in soil to see how this affected the final spatial position.

Pre-burial pre-treatment with this type of mummification may have allowed Mesolithic people to preserve and transport their dead, as it allowed for significantly lighter remains compared to a fresh corpse. “Moving the dead would be a costly undertaking,” the authors say, “mummifying before transport would make travel easier.”

Mummification may also have had important cultural implications for Mesolithic people’s understanding of death, especially given that the process often requires days – or months – of caring for the deceased’s numerous exudates.

A good mummy should be warm, ventilated, dry and – ideally – have some of the more gaseous, bacteria-heavy organs (but not always).

That mummification was not previously associated with the Mesolithic may be the result of the lack of all available tools of interpretation when analyzing burial sites, the researchers say, and also that people simply did not expect to find it.

They suggest that mummification may well have been much more widespread, even at this early stage, across Europe than previously thought, but more research is needed.

“Being an isolated case, it is difficult to say whether it represents an exceptional or a more common practice,” the authors concluded.

“It would also be valuable to return to the analysis of other potential [mummies] … with the same combination of archaeo-otanatological analysis and knowledge derived from experimental taphonomy.”

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