The oldest surviving human brain in Britain, dating back at least 2000 years to the Iron Age, was unearthed during excavations on the site of the University of York’s campus expansion at Heslington East.
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 by Sonia O'Connor on the rare survival of ancient brain tissue. We gave the skull special conservation treatment as a result, and we discussed the case with Dr O'Connor, who had encountered similar findings in medieval skeletons recovered from the site of the Magistrates Court in Hull" she said.
Following some investigations and sampling the archaeologists realised the significance of the discovery and sought expert medical opinion to confirm the nature of the material. York District 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."
The find is the second major discovery during archaeological investigations on the site of the University’s £500 million campus expansion. Earlier this year, a team from the University’s Department of Archaeology unearthed the skeleton of a man believed to be one of Britain’s earliest victims of tuberculosis in a shallow grave. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the man died in the fourth century late-Roman period.
There are now plans for a team of specialists to carry out further tests on the skull. They hope to solve the mystery of why such brains survive death and burial, what this might tell us about burial practices, the nature of the burial environment and, perhaps, about the individual whose brain it was.