Archaeologists baffled by ‘magical and mystical’ UK cave containing ‘mummies’

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The process of mummification is most closely associated with ancient Egypt. Myriad human remains have been found across the North African country, the most notable among them belonging to kings and queens. Britain is less known for being somewhere where mummification was practised.

Yet, deep inside some of the country’s most isolated caves, recent evidence has suggested that it did take place on these shores.

On Scotland’s north eastern coast lies the Covesea Caves range.

Just north of Inverness, they are among Scotland’s most impenetrable caverns, with researchers required to walk along perilous cliff faces and slippery moss lands.

The work of a team of researchers who explored the caves in 2020 was followed by the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Mystic Britain: Mummies’.

The documentary’s narrator described the caves as “one of the most mystic archaeological sites in Britain”.

While it is a major effort to get to the caves safely, evidence suggests that 3,000 years ago, Bronze Age Britons were less fearful of the consequences involved, as they made the “hazardous journey time and time again carrying the bodies of their dead”.

Dr Lindsey Büster, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said: “For prehistoric people to make the effort and to make the journey would have been really arduous and quite a difficult thing to do.”

She believes that the ancient people revisited the cave often because there was “something about this place that gave it mystical, perhaps even magical properties.”

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Dr Büster said: “When archaeologists first started excavating here, the floor was strewn with human bones.”

These bones were unique, however, unlike anything found in Britain before.

Hand bones found in the cave showed the presence of soft tissue — ligaments.

The same was found on another hand.

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The narrator said: “It may only be scraps, but don’t be fooled.

“This is preserved human flesh dating to the Bronze Age.”

Dr Büster added: It’s not something we expect when we’re excavating a site that’s 3,000 years old.

“That’s a really significant find.”

It’s possible that the bone was once part of an entire fully fleshed corpse, a body preserved by the unique conditions at Cowsea.

But, there’s no way to be certain.

However, there is evidence of fires being lit within the cave “at the same time presumably as bodies are being laid out”.

The smoke would likely have helped to preserve the bodies and body parts.

Bodies preserved by smoking and salting — “it sounds a lot like mummification”, the narrator noted.

Dr Büster suspects people came to the caves specifically to mummify their friends and relatives’ remains.

She said: “I think once bodies began to be brought into the cave and were behaving in ways that they didn’t normally do on above-ground sites, those characteristics were probably well noted and became a factory of people coming back again and again over centuries to deposit their dead.”

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