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Friday 24 February 2017

Bits & Pieces | Horror | Michael Whitehouse

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If you are interested in the weird and wonderful, then you might already be familiar with the strange case of the Uist mummies. Discovered in 2001, the mummified remains of two ancient residents of the Scottish island of South Uist have perplexed and puzzled archaeologists ever since they were unearthed.

Buried deep in the ground of that remote corner of the developed world, the most recent scientific data estimates that both corpses were placed there over 3000 years ago. Their skeletons were found to have been contorted into an unnatural foetal position, and the photos, which appeared in the national newspapers at the time, were enough to make anyone uneasy. It was said that such a deliberately manipulated pose was common in ancient burials, but it was clear during those first few weeks of the excavation that one of the bodies was anything but common.

The archaeologists exhuming the corpses placed great importance on the burials being the first concrete indication that the ancient peoples of the British Isles did indeed mummify their dead. This has created quite a stir in the academic community ever since. As we speak, the hunt to find the estimated hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly preserved dead ancients dotting the land beneath our feet continues.

After some preliminary tests were performed on the remains, it became apparent that both bodies had been immersed for at least a year in an acidic material shortly after death. This led to speculation that they had been mummified by being steeped in a nearby peat bog for some time - a blackened, swamp-like piece of wetland formed through centuries of accumulating rotting plants and animals. They were then left above ground, perhaps to be paid tribute to, or to act as a warning to others for hundreds of years for some hideous crime. Both bodies had been remarkably well preserved and it was estimated by the archaeological team on hand that they had probably been stored in a primitive hut or house structure for much of their time above ground. Why this occurred is anyone’s guess, but it has been argued that the bodies were of ceremonial importance. Perhaps a priest class lived alongside the seemingly immortalised bodies for an unknown ritualistic purpose, before finally concealing them in a stone coffin made of uneven slabs beneath the ground; not before removing a tooth from each jaw and placing them in the palms of their rotting clenched fists. A curious practice indeed.

The fact that the steeping of the bodies in the peat bog had led to the preservation of both corpses, excited the researchers: they believed that there was every possibility that some DNA might have been protected from thousands of years of rotting beneath the earth. This could be used to trace the ancestry of the individuals. And so, the difficult process of extracting genetic material from the remaining flesh began.

It was during this process that one of the scientists, a Dr M. Grealy, noticed something amiss with one of the cadavers. How something so obvious could have been initially overlooked was the source of much debate amongst the research team, but there seemed to be no doubt: one of the mummified corpses was not technically a solitary person. It was composed of body parts from a number of once-living individuals.

At first this was assumed to be pure chance, that perhaps the area had been an ancient cemetery, housing numerous cadavers, and had become a mixed bag of body parts as they rotted, tossed around by the elements above and below ground level. This, however, was vehemently denied by Dr Grealy. She was absolutely convinced that the mummified body was deliberately cobbled together from various corpses, for some unknown reason. Regardless of who was correct, the research team concluded unanimously that the body was ‘mostly’ that of a 40 year old man, comprised of, at the very least, an arm, part of a leg, and a few ribs coming from other sources - with the jaw bone and lower teeth certainly that of an elderly woman. DNA identification of other body parts was, unfortunately, impossible.

Dr Grealy initially argued that the remains must have been pieced together in a ritual where body parts were offered to the whole skeleton for some reason; perhaps as a way to cement alliances between tribes, or to lay claim to land where the cadaver was buried, much in the same way that marriage was often used to bring two groups together. But as her investigation became more time-consuming, the outlandish nature of her claims increased. After pouring over the data and performing her own tests on the corpse for several months, she petitioned the academic research team involved to publish her conclusions.

There was much resistance within the group, and it was decided that Dr Grealy had either lost her mind or was not the excellent researcher that they had believed her to be. She was suspended from the research project for an indefinite period and asked to rethink her assertions. But she would not, could not, let them go. Before being escorted from the laboratory where the mummified remains were being stored, she was informed of the proposals to remove her from the project by a sympathetic colleague. With little time to act, Dr Grealy gathered up all of her research notes and pocketed the jaw bone of the mummy, which she had removed carefully for analysis, before the head of the research team entered the laboratory with a security guard and asked her to leave the premises immediately.

Wracked by guilt at their colleague’s dismissal, two members of the research team maintained contact with Dr Grealy over the following four months, exchanging emails and even some ideas about the origins of the corpse. They all sympathised with her predicament, although they never would back up her conclusions publicly: they just seemed too outrageous. Even though some believed that the evidence did indeed suggest her beliefs were correct, no one was willing to put their name to a paper stating that the corpse - that 3000 year-old cobbled together collection of bones from different bodies - had at one time walked about; had lived as a single functioning human being. No, while Dr Grealy had found preliminary evidence that the bones could have been attached to one another by cartilage, tendons, and muscle, there must have been some bizarre contamination of the results. It just couldn’t have been true. That thing could never have been alive.
And so, she was on her own. And on her own she stayed, but while some amongst her ex-colleagues claimed that Grealy was quite mad, she didn’t seem delusional. She didn’t, for example, run to the press. No, she valued her career as a scientist and made it clear during conversations that she had to make sure that her conclusions were irrefutable, that the research team had not been justified in their reservations. It was for that reason she sank all of her money, time, and resources into finding another burial site on the island of South Uist. If she couldn’t gain access to that bizarre corpse, she would find her own to study, one which would hopefully lead to further evidence for her hypothesis. She was hopeful that an even better preserved body could be found, one which would show conclusively that the bones of different people had somehow been stitched or grafted together thousands of years ago - and walked the earth.

Dr Grealy hired a team of historians to help her identify locations which potentially contained early Bronze Age settlements. Those areas were then assessed at great cost by a freelance geophysical survey team, probing the ground for possible chambers or stone coffins hidden beneath. Keeping those she was closest to abridged of her progress, it appeared that she had indeed finally found another burial site, and was confident that its construction matched that of the first tomb.

Having spent all of her savings just to find the site, she did not have enough money left to hire a group of archaeologists to excavate any remains which might have been hidden there. For this reason, Dr Grealy undertook the back-breaking work of digging for proof herself. The phone calls and emails that she had been sending to her colleagues diminished over time, and it did indeed seem that she was slowly succumbing to obsessive behaviour and perhaps even a debilitating mental illness, ranting about ‘bits and pieces walking around at night, disturbing my work.’

A month later the body of a woman was found washed up on Kilpheder beach, South Uist. The remains were identified as belonging to Dr Grealy, but it was argued that that was impossible. She had been officially missing for just a few weeks, but the forensic investigation suggested that the body had been submerged in a peat bog for at least a year. Furthermore, the nature of Dr Grealy’s injuries caused much shock throughout the academic community, no more so than from those she had worked alongside excavating the original South Uist mummies. Her corpse was found exposed and naked as the tide moved out, curled up rigidly in a foetal position. Her jaw had been removed with measured precision, and in her clenched fist lay a tooth, the origin of which has yet to be identified.

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