Britain’s Oldest Brain.
In Archaeology it is very rare to find any soft tissue remains: no skin, no flesh, no hair and definitely no brains. However, in 2009, archaeologists from York Archaeological Trust found something very surprising at a site in Heslington, York.
During the excavation of an Iron-age landscape at the University of York, a skull, with the jaw and two vertebrae still attached, was discovered face down in a pit, without any evidence of what had happened to the rest of its body. At first it looked like a normal skull but it was not until it was being cleaned, that Collection Projects Officer, Rachel Cubitt, discovered something loose inside.
“I peered though the hole at the base of the skull to investigate and to my surprise saw a quantity of bright yellow spongy material. It was unlike anything I had seen before.” says Rachel. Sonia O’Connor, from Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, was able to confirm that this was brain. With the help of York Hospital’s Mortuary they were able to remove the top of the skull in order to get their first look at this astonishingly well-preserved human brain.
Since the discovery, a team of 34 specialists have been working on this brain to study and conserve it as much as possible. By radiocarbon dating a sample of jaw bone, it was determined that this person probably lived in the 6th Century BC, which makes this brain about 2,600 years old. By looking at the teeth and the shape of the skull it is likely this person was a man between 26 and 45 years old. An examination of the vertebrae in the neck tells us that he was first hit hard on the neck, and then the neck was severed with a small sharp knife, for reasons we can only guess.
No one quite understands how this strange preservation may have happened. Normally, in order for things to rot, they must have water, oxygen, and be at a temperature where the bacteria and rotting processes can be active. When one or more of these factors is missing, then preservation can occur. In the case of the Heslington Brain, the outside of the head has rotted as normal, but the inside is preserved.
After a lot of research the evidence suggests that the head was cut from the body very quickly after the person was killed. It was then immediately buried in a pit in wet, clay-rich ground, providing a sealed, oxygen-free burial environment. Over time the skin, hair and flesh of the skull did undergo chemical breakdown and gradually disappear, but the fats and proteins of the brain tissue linked together to form a mass of large complex molecules. This resulted in the brain shrinking, but it also preserved its shape and many microscopic features only found in brain tissue.
As there was no new oxygen in the brain, and no movement, it was protected and preserved.