In a muddy pit near the town of York in northern England, archaeologists have found a skull holding what they believe is the preserved remains of an “Iron Age brain.” Here’s how the noggin was first noticed: York Archaeological Trust dig team member Rachel Cubitt reached in [to the ditch] and, while she cleaned the soil-covered skull’s outer surface, “she felt something move inside the cranium. Peering through the base of the skull, she spotted an unusual yellow substance” [LiveScience]. Scans later showed that the yellow mass was in the shape of a shrunken brain, according to a press release from the University of York.
The skull was discovered in an area of extensive prehistoric farming landscape of fields, trackways and buildings dating back to at least 300 BC. The archaeologists believe the skull, which was found on its own in a muddy pit, may have been a ritual offering [BBC News]. Researchers declared it the oldest brain ever found in Britain, although it can’t touch the record for the oldest brain ever discovered: That honor belongs to the roughly 8,000-year-old scraps of brain tissue that were found in skeletons buried in a Florida peat bog. In the Florida case, the absence of bacteria in the acidic peat bogs allowed the organic tissue to be preserved; researchers still aren’t sure how the York brain was preserved or whether the yellow substance has any organic matter in it.
Once the archaeologists made their exciting discovery, a sophisticated CT scanner at York Hospital was then used to produce startlingly clear images of the skull’s contents. Philip Duffey, Consultant Neurologist at the Hospital said: “I’m amazed and excited that scanning has shown structures which appear to be unequivocally of brain origin. I think that it will be very important to establish how these structures have survived, whether there are traces of biological material within them and, if not, what is their composition” [CNN].
Brains are usually one of the first body parts to begin decomposing after death, and researchers pronounced themselves amazed that any part of the Iron Age individual’s gray matter was preserved. Duffey added: “This could be the equivalent of a fossil. The brain itself would generally not survive. Fatty tissues would be feasted on by microbes. This isn’t like the remains found in bogs; it doesn’t have any skin on the skull or any tissue remains elsewhere” [BBC News].
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Image: York Archaeological Trust