Prehistoric mummies unearthed in Hebrides

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

The Independent

16 March 2003

Mummification was practised by prehistoric Britons, according to a discovery made by archeologists from Sheffield University who have found the skeletal remains of two mummies buried under the floor of a 3,000-year-old house on the Hebridean island of South Uist.

The find, at Cladh Hallan on the west coast, will be officially announced on the BBC this Tuesday. It is the first indication that some prehistoric Europeans mummified their dead.

The archaeologists realised that something was unusual about the skeletons when tests revealed the individuals had died up to 500 years before they had been interred. Detailed forensic tests then showed they were mummified using peat as a preservation agent.

"The discovery is likely to redefine key aspects of life and death in prehistoric Britain," said Dr Mike Parker Pearson, director of the excavation. "It suggests that ancestors were even more central to ancient British belief systems than we had previously thought. We had never expected to find evidence for mummification in prehistoric Europe. This find is therefore a complete revelation." The discovery may also help to explain why some 15 million Bronze Age bodies are missing according to funerary evidence. If mummification was very widely used, many bodies would never have been buried.

The older of the two mummies, a man, died in around 1500BC, while the other, a woman, died around two centuries later.

Scientific analysis concluded the bodies were placed in a peat bog for between six and 18 months. The bodies were then exhumed and kept above ground until being buried again in around 1000BC.

Three things indicated mummification first that the bodies had been buried in an entirely anatomically correct condition hundreds of years after death suggesting that something, presumably skin and sinews, had kept the skeletons from falling apart, second that the outer few millimetres of bone had been demineralised an effect caused by temporary immersion in a peat bog and third that bacterial attack stomach bacteria devouring the corpse and attacking the bones had been halted shortly after death.

The mummies were buried under the floor of a large Bronze Age house which was part of a complex of seven conical-roofed round houses. Over the ensuing centuries the complex was used as a burial place for cremated children's bones and for the sacrifice of dogs and sheep.

Why the mummies were buried after being kept above ground for so many centuries is as yet unknown. It could be that invaders took over the area and expropriated not only the indigenous community's land but its ancestral mummies as well but what really happened will only be revealed by future archaeological research.

The Mummies of Cladh Hallan, a 'Meet the Ancestors' special documentary will be screened on BBC2 at 9pm this Tuesday




Miss Bell's lines in the sand


She was an archaeologist, a linguist and the greatest woman mountaineer of her age. And in Baghdad in 1921 she drew the boundaries of the country that became Iraq. James Buchan on the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell


Wednesday March 12, 2003

The Guardian


Gertrude Bell.


In British diplomatic group photographs of the early 20th-century Middle East, amid the plumes and uniforms and the calm paraphernalia of an empire going to hell in a bucket, there is often a solitary female. The woman is slim, with a head of luxuriant hair, and neatly dressed in billowing muslins or in the pencil silhouette and cloche hats of jazz-age Baghdad.

The woman is Gertrude Bell, who is as responsible as anybody for the rickety national state first known as Mesopotamia, and now as Iraq. As a powerful official of the British administration in Baghdad after the first world war, Bell ensured that an Arab state was founded from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, but one which was too weak to be independent of Britain. "I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq," she wrote to her father on December 4 1921.

One of Oxford University's most brilliant students, the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, an archaeologist and linguist, passionate, unhappy and rich, Bell saw in Arab male society, and what US President Woodrow Wilson called "the whole disgusting scramble" for the Middle East after the first world war, opportunities that were unthinkable at home.

John Buchan, in his novel Greenmantle (1916), and TE Lawrence in his guerrilla exploits in Arabia the following year, made popular a myth that an Englishman could become an Arab - only more so. To her generation in Britain, Bell went one better. She seemed to move as an equal among the sheikhs without compromising her British femininity. Her letters to her father and stepmother, one of the great correspondences of the past century, pass easily from orders for cotton gowns at Harvey and Nichols [sic] to the new-fangled British air warfare being tried out on recalcitrant Iraqi Arabs and Kurds.

The historical waters have closed over TE Lawrence. Even back in the 70s, I could find nobody with any recollection of him at the scenes of his exploits in western Arabia. But "Miss Bell" is still a name in Baghdad. Even in conversations with the vicious and cornered cadres of Saddam Hussein's regime, her name will come up to evoke, for a moment, an innocent Baghdad of picnics in the palm gardens and bathing parties in the Tigris.

Yet Bell and her superior as British high commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, laid down policies of state in Iraq that were taken up by Saddam's Arab Ba'ath socialist party. Those policies were to retain, if necessary by violence, the Kurdish mountains as a buffer against Turkey and Russia; to promote Sunni Muslims and other minorities over the Shia majority; to repress the Shia clergy in Najaf, Kerbela and Kazimain, or expel them to Iran; to buy off the big landowners and tribal elders; to stage disreputable plebiscites; and to deploy air power as a form of political control. "Iraq can only be ruled by force," a senior Ba'ath official told me in 1999. "Mesopotamia is not a civilised state," Bell wrote to her father on December 18 1920.

The Ba'ath is facing extinction. Any US civil and military administration in its place will have the precedent of Bell's 1920 white paper (typically, the first ever written by a woman), Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia. Sixteen volumes of diaries and about 1,600 letters to her parents, transcribed and posted on the web by the University of Newcastle library (www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk) are a must-read at the Pentagon, less for their portrait of an oriental culture in its last phase as for their perilous mingling of political insight and blind elation.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14 1868 in Washington, Co Durham. Her family were ironmasters on a grand scale, with progressive attitudes. In 1886, Bell went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she was the first woman to win a first-class degree in modern history. Unwanted in the marriage market - too "Oxfordy" a manner, it was said - she taught herself Persian and travelled to Iran in 1892, where her uncle was British ambassador.

She wrote her first travel book, Persian Pictures, and translated the libertine Persian poet Hafez into Yellow Book verse. She also fell in love with an impecunious British diplomat, who was rejected by her father. Though she was to form passionate attachments all her life, she kept them under rigid formal restraint.

The next decade she killed in two round-the-world journeys and in the Alps, where she gained renown for surviving 53 hours on a rope on the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn, when her expedition was caught in a blizzard in the summer of 1902. She had begun to learn Arabic in Jerusalem in 1897, wrote about Syria, and taught herself archaeology. She immersed herself in tribal politics and in 1914 made a dangerous journey to Hail, a town in northern Arabia that was the headquarters of a bitter enemy of Britain's new ally, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.

With the outbreak of war that summer, and the entry of the Ottoman empire on the side of Germany that November, Bell was swept up with TE Lawrence and other archaeologist-spies into an intelligence operation in Cairo, known as the Arab Bureau. In Iraq, an expeditionary force from India had surrendered to the Turks at Kut al-Amara on the lower Tigris in 1916. Bell travelled to Basra, where a new army was assembling. When Baghdad fell to the reinforcements in 1917, she moved up to the capital and was eventually appointed Cox's oriental secretary, responsible for relations with the Arab population.

British policy in the Middle East was in utter confusion. While the government of India wanted a new imperial possession at the head of the Persian Gulf, London had made extravagant promises of freedom to persuade the Arabs to rise up against the Turks. The compromise, which was bitterly resented in Iraq, was the so-called League of Nations Mandate, granted to Britain in 1920.

Senior Indian officials, such as the formidable AT Wilson, argued that the religious and tribal divisions in Iraq would for ever undermine an Iraqi state. Bell believed passionately in Arab independence and persuaded London that Iraq had enough able men at least to provide an administrative facade. But she had two blind spots. She always overestimated the popularity of Cox and herself, and she underestimated the force of religion in Iraqi affairs and the Shia clergy "sitting in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it - nor can they".

On June 27 1920, she was writing: "In this flux, there is no doubt they are turning to us." In fact, the Shia tribes of the entire middle Euphrates rose in revolt the next month, and hundreds of British soldiers and as many as 8,000 Iraqis were killed before it could be suppressed. The next spring, Winston Churchill called a conference in Cairo, where Bell - the only woman among the delegates - had her way. The Hashemite Prince Faisal, a protege of TE Lawrence who had been ousted by the French in Syria, was acclaimed King of Iraq in a referendum that would not have shamed the Ba'ath. The "yes" vote was 96%. In place of the mandate, an Anglo-Iraqi treaty was railroaded through the Iraqi parliament.

Bell was carried away. "I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain," she wrote with uncharacteristic vanity. She fell prey to Iraqi flattery and was given the nickname Khatun, which means fine lady or gentlewoman. "As we rode back through the gardens of the Karradah suburb," she told her father on September 11 1921, "where all the people know me and salute me as I pass, Nuri [Said] said, 'One of the reasons you stand out so is because you're a woman. There's only one Khatun... For a hundred years they'll talk of the Khatun riding by.' I think they very likely will."

Yet she could also attend a display of the force being deployed by the RAF on the Kurds around Sulaimaniya: "It was even more remarkable than the one we saw last year at the Air Force show because it was much more real. They had made an imaginary village about a quarter of a mile from where we sat on the Diala dyke and the two first bombs dropped from 3,000ft, went straight into the middle of it and set it alight. It was wonderful and horrible. Then they dropped bombs all round it, as if to catch the fugitives and finally fire bombs which even in the brightest sunlight made flares of bright flame in the desert. They burn through metal and water won't extinguish them. At the end the armoured cars went out to round up the fugitives with machine guns."

Bell was never liked, either in London or New Delhi, and when Cox left Baghdad in 1923, she lost her bureaucratic protector. She devoted more of her time to her old love, archaeology, and established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum which, remarkably, has survived. Her letters home were more and more dominated by illness and depression. On Monday July 12 1926, quite suddenly, Gertrude Bell died.

The official story was that years of gruelling work in the 49C (120F) heat of the Baghdad summer had proved too much for "her slender stock of physical energy". In fact, she took an overdose of sleeping pills, by accident or by intention. She is buried in Baghdad.

Thanks to crude oil, found in commercial quantities at Kirkuk in 1927, the little Iraqi monarchy survived Turkish intrigue, Saudi aggression and repeated uprisings, the worst in 1941 when pro-German officers drove the king and Nuri Said, the prime minister, into exile. But the collapse of British power and prestige at Suez in 1956 marked the end of the road. Faisal II and the royal family were murdered in a republican coup d'etat on July 14 1958.

The Iraq of Gertrude Bell had lasted 37 years. The Ba'ath finally seized power in 1968, built a prosperous despotism in the 1970s but destroyed itself and the country in hopeless military adventures in Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990. As of yesterday, Ba'athist Iraq had lasted 35 years.

Bell's letters home

Whenever there was snow we sank in it up to the waist... I nearly took a straight cut on to the glacier, for I slipped on a bit of iced rock into a snow gully till the rope fortunately caught me. We all cut our hands over that incident, but it was otherwise the most comfortable part of the descent.

The Alps, 18 July 1902

Such an arrival! Sir Percy made me most welcome and said a house had been allotted to me... a tiny, stifling box of a place in a dirty little bazaar. Fortunately, I had not parted from my bed and bath. These I set up and further unpacked one of my boxes which had been dropped into the Tigris and hung out all the things to dry on the railing of the court.

Baghdad, April 20 1917

I don't think I shall ever be able to detach myself permanently from the fortunes of this country.... it's a wonderful thing to feel the affection and confidence of a whole people round you. But oh to be at the end of the war and to have a free hand!

Baghdad, May 26 1917

Until quite recently I've been wholly cut off from [the Shias] because their tenets forbid them to look upon an unveiled woman and my tenets don't permit me to veil... Nor is it any good trying to make friends through the women - if they were allowed to see me they would veil before me as if I were a man. So you see I appear to be too female for one sex and too male for the other.

Baghdad, March 14 1920

Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night? At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the midst.

Baghdad, September 11 1921

James Buchan has reported from the Middle East since the 70s.


Treasured past once again at risk

Many Iraqis convinced U.S. wants to blunt resurrection of Babylon

Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer


Wednesday, March 19, 2003 


Babylon, Iraq -- If many Western anti-war protesters believe America's real motive for invading Iraq is its oil, many Iraqis point to another treasure they are convinced lies behind U.S. war aims: Babylon.

This ancient city was the cradle of world civilization thousands of years ago and hit its golden era during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C. Now, it is a repository of the Iraqi regime's ambition and fears.

"We are sure that the Americans, like they were in the Gulf War, are intent on occupying Iraq for religious purposes," said Muayad Damerji, who was in charge of Babylon as director of Iraq's Antiquities Department from 1977 to 1998 and is now an adviser to the minister of culture.

Many Iraqis, from high officialdom down to average folk, seem obsessed with the idea that the Americans want to invade Iraq to stop the rise of Babylon as an Islamic counterpart to Jewish Jerusalem. And archaeologists, from Baghdad to the United States, are worried that a U.S. invasion could put many of Iraq's ancient treasures at risk.

In his speeches, President Saddam Hussein constantly refers to Iraq's ancient glory, as if to drum into average citizens the fact that their country deserves an exalted spot on the world stage, and he has long envisioned a grand reconstruction of the ancient city of Babylon.

By the 1970s, little remained of the storied site. Centuries of sand and wind had eroded the walls and buildings of mud brick. No trace remains of the Hanging Gardens -- one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World -- nor of the Tower of Babel.

But since he took power in 1981, Hussein has rebuilt large sections of the ruins, leaving his fingerprints everywhere. Every rebuilt wall in the central temple has a brick at the center with a message stating, "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq." Reconstruction work was halted due to lack of funds after the Gulf War, but hovering over the Babylon site is a monstrous presidential palace, built on a man-made 100-foot- high hill during the past decade, as if to show who is the new emperor.

As the likelihood of U.S. invasion has grown stronger, American archaeologists have raised loud warnings that Iraq's historical treasures -- as politicized as they may be -- could be in danger from bombs, fighting and subsequent rioting.



By all accounts, protecting this country's archaeological treasures will not prove easy. During the Gulf War, heavy damage was done at Ur, in southern Iraq, which was occupied by U.S. troops for several weeks. American bombing raids left 400 holes in one side of the pyramid, or ziggurat, which dates from 2142 B.C. And at the nearby unexcavated site of Tell al-Lahm, U.S. soldiers dug trenches in what they thought were hills but were actually ancient mounds containing ruins.

During the Gulf War, U.S. officials accused the Iraqis of deliberately moving military equipment close to archaeological sites in an attempt to make the Americans shy away from targeting the war materiel. In fact, the Iraqis seem somewhat reckless in choosing sites of military bases. At Ur, for example,

a major military base is only a mile way, and at Nineveh in northern Iraq, the seventh century B.C. palace is adjacent to a radar tower guarded by the Iraqi military.

But far more severe than bomb damage was the postwar looting by anti- Hussein mobs. Nine regional museums were ransacked, Damerji says, and 4,000 artifacts were stolen -- including antiquities from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, which had come under heavy bombing as U.S. warplanes targeted a telecommunications facility across the street.



John Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, and other U.S. experts praise and defend their Iraqi counterparts, saying the Iraqi researchers' inability to prevent deterioration in the country's cultural heritage is a result of the economic crisis brought on by U.N. sanctions.

"The absolutely, positively stupidest thing I can think of that the United States could do for archaeology in a . . . postwar scenario would be to try to take over the operation of the antiquities department or to change Iraq's state-of-the-art antiquities policies," Russell said. "The smartest thing would be to ask the department what it needs and then make sure they get it."

In a recent petition to the Pentagon, dozens of prominent American archaeologists and museum curators appealed to U.S. war planners to prevent damage to Iraq's historical treasures.

The Defense Department requested further information, and the petitioners supplied a list of the locations of over 5,000 known sites. The State Department has indicated that it would establish a working group on antiquities and heritage as part of its "Future of Iraq" project.

"These are good omens for the preservation of archaeology in a possible war, " said Russell, who has excavated at Nineveh and is one of the petitioners, "but the follow-through will be crucial."

Many Iraqi museums have taken their treasures off display and have crated them in secure basements to protect them from bombing and looting. In addition,

the roofs of museums have been painted with the logo of UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"We just hope the American pilots know what the logo is," said Damerji. "But then again, they'll probably be firing their missiles from 50 kilometers away, so it might not help anyway."



Iraq's illustrious history is treasured by Iraqis and cited often as proof of their destiny.

Around 3500 B.C., the Sumerians developed the world's first great civilization in the area that is now Iraq, and cuneiform writing on clay tablets was developed 300 years later. Empires rose and fell in ancient Mesopotamia, from the Akkadians to the Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Parthians and Romans.

Abraham, the patriarch of the Torah and Old Testament, came from the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur. Hammurabi, who virtually invented the concept of law, ruled in Babylon, as did Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Jerusalem, and Alexander the Great.

Baghdad became the richest city in the world under the Abbasid Caliphs for 500 years. Arabic numbers, the decimal system and algebra were invented there, and important advances were made in medicine. But everything was destroyed in A.D. 1258, when the Mongols conquered and destroyed Baghdad -- an event frequently alluded to by Saddam Hussein, who compares the United States under President Bush to the Mongol hordes.

E-mail Robert Collier at rcollier@sfchronicle.com