© York Archaeological Trust
A piece of the preserved Heslington brain after it was removed from the skull in which it was found.
A 2,500-year-old human skull uncovered in England was less of a surprise than what was in it: the brain. The discovery of the yellowish, crinkly, shrunken brain prompted questions about how such a fragile organ could have survived so long and how frequently this strange type of preservation occurs.
Except for the brain, all of the skull's soft tissue was gone when the skull was pulled from a muddy Iron Age pit where the University of York was planning to expand its Heslington East campus.
"It was just amazing to think that a brain of someone who had died so many thousands of years ago could persist just in wet ground," said Sonia O'Connor, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Bradford. O'Connor led a team of researchers who assessed the state of the brain after it was found in 2008 and looked into likely modes of preservation.
"It's particularly surprising, because if you talk to pathologists who deal with fresh dead bodies they say the first organ to really deteriorate and to basically go to liquid is the brain because of its high fat content," O'Connor said.
When it was found, the skull - which belonged to a man probably between 26 and 45 years old - was accompanied by a jaw and two neck vertebrae, bearing evidence of hanging and then decapitation. Cut marks on the inside of the neck indicate that the head was severed while there was still flesh on the bones, O'Connor said. There is, however, no indication of why he was hanged, and the rest of his remains have yet to be found.
More than a decade earlier, O'Connor was involved in the discovery of 25 preserved brains within medieval-era remains from Kingston-upon-Hull in England. Aside from the brains, only bones remained, and all other soft tissue was gone.