Dozens of scientists conserve Britain's oldest brain from face-down skull in Iron Age pit

| 27 February 2015

Archaeologists mystified by 2,600-year preservation of brain belonging to victim of beheading in ancient York

A close up photo of a brain
The valuable tissue matter of Britain's oldest brain© York Archaeological Trust
The preservation of Britain’s oldest brain, found when archaeologists saw its spongy shape in a skull face-down in a pit at an Iron Age site in York in 2009, remains a mystery.

Water, oxygen and bacteria-supporting warmth would all have encouraged the brain to rot. The outside of the skull, which had its jaw and two vertebrae attached, has withered – but the Heslington Brain has remained intact.

“I peered though the hole at the base of the skull to investigate,” recalls Rachell Cubitt, a Collection Projects Officer with the York Archaeological Trust.

“To my surprise saw a quantity of bright yellow spongy material. It was unlike anything I had seen before.”

A photo of a skull
Scientists believe the head was cut from the body almost immediately after the 26-to-45-year-old individual was killed, and radiocarbon dating – carried out by a team of 34 specialists who have studied and conserved the brain – has dated it to the 6th century BC.

A hard hit to the neck and a severance with a small, sharp knife took place before the head was left in a wet, clay-rich, oxygen-free burial environment.

Although the brain has shrunk, its tissue has remained – unlike the skin, hair and flesh of the skull, which were chemically broken down on the way to gradually disappearing.

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Perhaps one day we might find a way of tapping into its memory section of it has survived
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