When I was a wee lad in Edinburgh the ‘Gunnister Man’ used to be on display in the Queen Street Museum of Antiquities but has since been taken back to Shetland where he was originally dug up.
The Gunnister Man is the remains of a man found by two Shetlanders in a peat bog not far from the junction of the A970 road in Gunnister, Shetland, Scotland. The bog body was found on 12 May 1951 as the men were digging peat for fuel. It was discovered at a depth of about 75 centimetres (30 in) at grid reference HU3290 7330. A stone placed by the Northmavine History Group now marks the find location.
The body is believed to date from the late 17th or early 18th century. Three coins found in a knitted purse were a 6-Stuiver piece from Nijmegen (Netherlands) dated to 1690, a 2-Stiver piece from Overijssel dated to 1681 and a ⅙ Öre from Sweden dating from 1683. The knitted purse found with the body is believed to be the earliest example of two-colour knitting in Shetland. The man was dressed in many woollen clothes, all of which survived burial in the peat in excellent condition. He wore a woollen shirt, a suit of long coat and short wide breeches, and an outer jacket. He had two caps, a pair of gloves and knitted stockings.
His remains suggest he was walking in wintertime, and he may have died of illness or exposure. It is not possible to see any settlement from where he was buried and weather in late 17th and early 18th century northern Europe was extremely cold and stormy. His body was purposefully buried, with the objects he carried carefully buried with him. It is not known if he was a Shetlander or a visitor to the islands. The coins were common in Shetland at that time because of trade by north European merchants, so these give no clear indication of his origin.
Other items found included a leather belt, a silk ribbon, three woollen cords, a small knitted fragment, a birch stick, a wooden stave tub, a knife handle, a horn spoon, a quill, a horn container with wooden stopper, and two flat pieces of wood. The only remains of the man were a piece of skull with dark hair, finger and toe nails, fragments of bone from the sleeves and in one stocking.
All objects in the original find went to Edinburgh and are now in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland. Some objects are on permanent display in various parts of NMS galleries. Immediately after the burial was discovered, the finds were taken to a local house, where some people knitted replicas of the stockings and purse. These replicas are on display in Tangwick Haa Museum in Northmavine, Shetland. In 2009, Shetland Museum and Archives made full replicas of all of the finds, which are together displayed in a permanent Gunnister Man display in Lerwick, Shetland.
Stroma is an island off the northern coast of the mainland of Scotland. It is within the durisdiction of Caithness and Highland Council. It was abandoned in the mid 1960’s and is only used now to graze sheep. It is the most southerly of the islands in the Pentland Firth between the Orkney islands and Caithness, the northeasternmost part of the mainland. The name is from the Old Norse Straumr-øy meaning "island in the [tidal] stream".
Ancient stone structures testify to the presence of Stroma's earliest residents, while a Norse presence around 900–1,000 years ago is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga. There is a Viking stronghold on top of a sea stack. It has been politically united with Caithness since at least the 15th century. Although Stroma lies only a few miles off the Scottish coast, the savage weather and ferociously strong tides of the Pentland Firth meant that the island's inhabitants were very isolated, causing them to be largely self-sufficient, trading agricultural produce and fish with the mainlanders.
One curious side-effect of the constant spray of sea-water over Stroma – apart from making the drinking water brackish and giving the air a salty taste – was that it mummified the corpses of some of the island's inhabitants. They were housed in a mausoleum in the south-east corner of Stroma, built by the Kennedy family in 1677. The building still stands, although it is now unroofed; it comprises a two-storey structure which incorporates a burial vault and a doocot. The building was constructed from grey flagstones and pink sandstone quoins, measuring 25 ft (7.6 m) by 18 ft 5 in (5.61 m) externally and standing 22 ft (6.7 m) high. The lintel of the door has the inscription "I.K." (John Kennedy) and the date 1677 carved into it.
The mummies of Stroma were something of a tourist attraction in the 18th century. Welsh naturalist and traveller Thomas Pennant described them as "entire and uncorrupted bodies of persons who had been dead sixty years. I was informed that they were very light, had a flexibility in their limbs and were of a dusky color." However, their popularity proved their undoing. In 1762 Bishop of Ross and Caithness Robert Forbes recorded in his journal that Murdoch Kennedy
... played such wretched tricks on the Body of his Father, for the Diversion of Strangers, as in time broke it to pieces, and the Head was the part that fell first off. He used to place Strangers at his Father's Feet, and by setting a Foot on one of his Father's, he made the Body spring up speedily and salute them, which surprized them greatly. Then, after laying the body down again, he beat a march upon the Belly, which sounded equally loud with a Drum.
By 1786 the mummies had been destroyed by cattle and careless visitors as, according to Walker's Hibernian Magazine, "curiosity to see the mummies had brought many idle people to Stroma, [and] that some, out of wantonness had shattered the door, and others the bodies; and the door not being repaired, sheep and cattle entered the vault, and trampled them to pieces." There is now no trace of the original burials in the vault.
Scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish "bog bodies" are actually made from the remains of six people. Perhaps the work of a Bronze Age Dr Frankenstein?
Two skeletons, excavated by archaeologists at Cladh Hallan, on South Uist in the Western Isles Scotland, seem to have been deliberately mummified – and one was only buried an estimated five hundred years after he died, both of the skeletons provide evidence of mummification and post mortem manipulation of body parts. Perhaps these practices were widespread in Bronze Age Britain? Based on radiocarbon evidence from the male’s skull and the female’s tibia, the male is believed to have died around 1600 BC, and the female at around 1300 BC. However, other tests showed they were both buried around 1120 BC.
The Cladh Hallan Mummies represent the only proof, to date, that Britons in the Bronze Age practiced mummification. The remains exhibit strong evidence that the bodies were preserved by placing them in an acidic environment, probably a peat bog. The preservation effect of peat bogs would have been well known at the time as people would regularly have seen preserved artefacts as they dug up the peat to fuel their fires
As an interesting aside, the male mummy predates Tutankhamun by centuries!
South Uist was heavily populated from around 2000 BC until the end of the Viking period over three thousand years later, and the mummies were found in an unusually well preserved group of Late Bronze Age / Iron Age roundhouses. These were constructed as a row of four roundhouses all built as a single structure with party walls. The environment consisted of grasslands, sand dunes and a beach – and over 200 settlements from this period have been found in the wider area.
Five humans, (three of them children), and two dogs were buried within the huts, most in the north-east quadrant, which is consistent with other burial practice in the area. The children and dogs were buried and the floor and huts built over them. The two mummified adults seem to have been buried by digging through the floor within the houses.
The male bones were examined by X-ray scattering which showed that they were partially mineralised with larger than normal crystals towards the outside of the bone (implying an environmentally acidic burial, such as in peat). Osteological evidence on the woman’s bones demonstrates that the left knee was broken off while the body was still articulated but that the removed bones were buried while still in articulation. However, as this was a considerable period after death it shows very long-term preservation of the soft tissue – ie mummification.
British Bronze Age mummification in Britain developed a unique local innovation. In Egypt body preservation was to ensure that pharaohs, priests and nobles could exist in the afterlife. In Scotland mummification may have been done to secure a place in the afterworld, but because the mummies were left unburied for centuries, they could also—importantly— keep watch over the living. These past ancestors personified were also the guardians of ancient traditions.
The Bronze Age was a time of transformation in Britain’s prehistoric past. The landscapes long dominated by the barrows and cairns of the dead, were replaced by, (according to Mike Parker Pearson who was in charge of the excavation), “Landscapes of the living, filled with houses, settlements and field systems. This change is particularly evident at Cladh Hallan around 1100 BC when these mummified, ancestral dead were deliberately buried within the solid and imposing roundhouses which marked a significant change from the small and ephemeral houses of the Earlier Bronze Age.”
According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the mummies—a male and a female—were assembled from various body parts. We may never know the reason or purpose for these gruesome Frankenstein composites. The mummies were discovered over a decade ago below the ruins of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on South Uist. The bodies had been arranged and 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 dug up. The skeletons were reburied centuries later.
Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, said there were clues that these bog bodies were more than they seemed. On the female skeleton, "the jaw didn't fit into the rest of the skull," he said. "So Mike [Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University] came and said, Could we try to work it out through DNA testing?" Brown sampled DNA from the female skeleton's jawbone, skull, arm, and leg. The results show that bones came from different people, none of whom even shared the same mother, he said. The female is made from body parts that date to around the same time period. But isotopic dating showed that the male mummy is made from people who died a few hundred years apart. Another clue to the odd nature of the Cladh Hallan mummies is their unusually well-preserved bones.
A peat bog is a high-acid, low-oxygen environment, which inhibits the bacteria that break down organics, said Gill Plunkett, a lecturer in paleo-ecology at Queen's University Belfast. "The combined conditions are particularly good for the preservation of most organic materials," she said. "But on the other hand, the acidic conditions will attack calcium-based materials," with the consequence that bog bodies have better-preserved skin and soft tissue than bones. In the Cladh Hallan bodies, the bones are still articulated—attached to each other as they would be in life. This suggests that the buriers removed the bodies from the peat bog after preservation, but before acid destroyed the bones. When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down.
Why did villagersgo to such extremes to preserve their dead? And why would they create composite mummies? 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." Another possibility is that the merging was deliberate, to create a symbolic ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages. Brown cites the example of the Chinchorro mummies discovered in the Chilean Andes, where embalmers reinforced or reconstructed bodies with sticks, grass, animal hair, or even sea lion skin.
"It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it's not a single identity, but it's representing something." Brown thinks there may be other composite bodies waiting to be discovered. Often when scientists study the DNA of very ancient remains, they sample only one part of a body to prevent needless damage to the skeleton. Additional composite bodies, if they exist, are likely to come from such long-ago time periods. "I think you'd have to go back to a time when the rituals were more bizarre," Brown said. "You'd have to go back to the mists of unrecorded time."
Cladh Hallan (Scottish Gaelic: Cladh Hàlainn,) is an archaeological site on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It is significant as the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. Excavations were carried out there between 1988 and 2002, indicating the site was occupied from 2000 BC.
In 2001, a team of archaeologists found four skeletons at the site, one of them a male who had died c. 1600 BC, and another a female who had died c. 1300 BC. (about the same time as King Tutankhamun of Egypt). At first the researchers did not realise they were dealing with mummies, since the soft tissue had decomposed and the skeletons had been buried. But tests revealed that both bodies had not been buried until about 1120 BC, and that the bodies had been preserved shortly after death in a peat bog for 6 to 18 months. The preserved bodies were then apparently retrieved from the bog and set up inside a dwelling, presumably having religious significance. Archaeologists do not know why the bodies were buried centuries later. The Cladh Hallan skeletons differ from most bog bodies in two respects: unlike most bog bodies, they appear to have been put in the bog for the express purpose of preservation (whereas most bog bodies were simply interred in the bog), and unlike most bog bodies, their soft tissue was no longer preserved at the time of discovery.
Looking rather out-of-place and towering 15 metres above the surrounding rows of pebble-dashed 1930s bungalows, this neoclassical mausoleum looks more like something that you would come across when visiting the Forum in Rome rather than beside a bowling club in an Edinburgh suburb!
This unexpected sight is the final resting place of William Henry Miller, one-time MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, a rather curious and eccentric chap whose family once owned all the surrounding land and the nearby Craigentinny House. When it was built, the mausoleum stood in open fields and would have been slightly less incongruous, but a puzzle nonetheless. Why did he choose to be buried here rather than in a churchyard and why was the coffin entombed at the bottom of a deep 40ft stone-lined shaft and sealed with a massive stone slab?
Miller spent most of his early life at his home in Berkshire, surrounded by the thousands of antique books that he was passionate about collecting, but moved to Edinburgh to live in the family estate in his later years. He died in 1848 leaving the huge sum of £20,000 (equivalent to about £2.3 million today) for the erection of a suitable monument to celebrate his life and the arts.
Designed by the architect David Rhind and featuring two bas-relief carvings by the renowned British sculptor Alfred Gatley, who in his day, was known as ‘The Landseer of Sculpture’. The carving on the south side, titled ‘The Song of Moses & Miriam’, depicts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites with their possessions and livestock and oddly playing tambourines as they go. On the north side can be seen ‘The overthrowof Pharaoh in the Red Sea,’ as Pharaoh and his army are engulfed by the power of the waves.
The carvings were widely admired at the time, and comparison with the famous Elgin stones lead to the ‘Craigentinny Marbles’, moniker.
Rumours abounded that the burial conditions were to conceal the fact that he was a hermaphrodite or a changeling, a vampire or was he mummified like a Pharaoh but the most likely explanation was that he was simply, like Pharaoh himself, afraid of grave robbers. This was just a few years after a couple of other gentlemen grave-robbers called Burke and Hare had been active in Edinburgh.
If you want to view Miller’s 17th Century Family home, Craigentinny House, it can be found about half a mile back towards town at 9 Loaning Road.
Because many Scots travelled the world and came back from Egypt with mummies, Edinburgh’s National Museum has one of the finest collections of Egyptian mummies and art in the world. Try these links for more information.