Bronze age Britons made keepsakes from parts of dead relatives, archaeologists say

Bronze age Britons remembered the dead by keeping and curating bits of their bodies, and even turning them into instruments and ornaments, according to new research on the remains.

Archaeologists found that pieces of bone buried with the dead were often from people who had died decades earlier, suggesting their remains had been kept for future generations, as keepsakes or perhaps for home display.

“This is the first evidence we have for an established bronze age tradition of curating human remains for substantial lengths of time, over several generations,” said Thomas Booth, who carbon-dated the remains at the University of Bristol.

“It’s indicative of a broader mindset where the line between the living and the dead was more blurred than it is today,” he said. “There wasn’t a mindset that human remains go in the ground and you forget about them. They were always present among the living.”

While the practice might seem macabre by modern standards, Booth points out that the retention of bits of friends and relatives lives on in the tradition of keeping an urn of a loved one’s ashes on the mantlepiece. In the bronze age, remains might have been kept in families or passed around the community, depending on who they came from.

A bronze age flanged axe found alongside a human bone musical instrument.
A bronze age flanged axe found alongside a human bone musical instrument. Photograph: David Bukachit/University of Birmingham/Wiltshire Museum/PA

Booth and his colleague, Prof Joanna Bruck, studied human and animal bones, and pieces of charcoal and nutshells, from bronze age sites across Britain. At some of the sites, people were buried with pieces of human bone, or artefacts made from human bone, belonging to other people.

Carbon-dating of the remains showed that, on average, the “curated” human body parts were buried about two generations after the individual died, though the range of dates suggests they could be more recent or as old as six generations.

Bruck, the principal investigator on the project, said that although pieces of human bone were included as “grave goods” with the dead, they were also kept at home, buried under floors, and placed on display.

One remarkable item, found with a man buried near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, turned out to be a whistle made from a carved and highly polished human thigh bone. Dating suggests it belonged to someone who lived around the same time. Meanwhile, at Windmill Fields, Stockton-on-Tees, a woman was buried with skulls and limb bones from at least three other people who died an estimated 60 to 170 years before her. Nearby was what appears to be a ceremonial box of bones, all of a similar age to those buried with the woman.

“Our study indicates that bronze age people were accustomed to handling the bones of the dead, even in their day-to-day lives,” said Bruck. “Bones belonging to significant ancestors were curated as relics, and even made into artefacts, some of which may have been used or displayed in the homes of the living.”

“Radiocarbon-dating of curated bones suggests that bronze age people’s sense of identity and belonging was based on their links to known kin who had died in the past few decades rather than to distant and anonymous ancestors,” she added. The research is published in the journal Antiquity.

A skeleton from Windmill Fields, Stockton-upon-Tees, buried with skulls and bones of three people who had died several decades earlier.
A skeleton from Windmill Fields, Stockton-upon-Tees, buried with skulls and bones of three people who had died several decades earlier. Photograph: Tees Archaeology/PA

The archaeologists next used a procedure called microcomputed tomography, or micro-CT, at the Natural History Museum, to look at the fine structure of the bones. The micro-CT images showed that some of the bones had been cremated before being separated, others had been exhumed, and yet more had been de-fleshed by allowing them to decompose on the ground.

“Our research demonstrates that excarnation – the exposure of fleshed bodies to the elements – was in fact common throughout the bronze age, and evidence for the manipulation of partially fleshed bodies in a variety of ritual practices indicates that bronze age people had a quite different attitude to death and the dead than we have today,” Bruck said.

Booth said various bronze age human artefacts, including the whistle, possible amulets, and a skull with perforations that suggested it had been hung up as an ornament, gave a flavour of the multitude of ways in which humans remembered the deceased. “It’s likely you have a whole ceremonial smorgasbord of what you can do with human remains and we just see glimpses of the various ways in which they were used,” he said. “Humans remains always have some intrinsic power. Perhaps they brought some comfort.”

The Guardian

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