While digging the foundation for a new expansion at the University of York, a human cranium was discovered that contained preserved remains of brain tissue. Using a CT scanner, researchers from Bradford University and the University of York are studying the brain’s structure and its chemical composition to find out how it survived preservation for so long, and how it is different from the contemporary brains.
From a University of York press release:
Archaeologists from York Archaeological Trust, commissioned by the University to carry out the exploratory dig, made the discovery in an area of extensive prehistoric farming landscape of fields, trackways and buildings dating back to at least 300 BC.
And they believe the skull, which was found on its own in a muddy pit, may have been a ritual offering.
As Finds Officer Rachel Cubitt 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.
"It jogged my memory of a university lecture on the rare survival of ancient brain tissue. We gave the skull special conservation treatment as a result, and sought expert medical opinion," she said.
York Hospital’s sophisticated CT scanner was 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."
Dr Sonia O’Connor, Research Fellow in Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford added: "The survival of brain remains where no other soft tissues are preserved is extremely rare. This brain is particularly exciting because it is very well preserved, even though it is the oldest recorded find of this type in the UK, and one of the earliest worldwide."
An interview with the BBC:
Press release: Iron Age ‘sacrifice’ is Britain’s oldest surviving brain…
Images: Top: Brain material shows as dark folded matter at the top of the head in this computer-generated view into the skull. The lighter colours in the skull represent soil. Brain material shows as dark folded matter at the top of the head in this computer-generated view into the skull. The lighter colours in the skull represent soil. Credit: York Archaeological Trust ; Bottom: Dr Sonia O’Connor, from the University of Bradford, examines the remains of the brain using an endoscope. Dr Sonia O’Connor, from the University of Bradford, examines the remains of the brain using an endoscope. Credit: University of Bradford