During Bronze Age, human remains were preserved as relics by people in their homes to honor loved ones: Study

In one of the graves, the team found a musical instrument carved out of a human thigh bone but the practice of shaping bones into objects could be rare


                            During Bronze Age, human remains were preserved as relics by people in their homes to honor loved ones: Study
Unique-pronged bronze object from the Wilsford G58 burial found alongside the human bone musical instrument (Wiltshire Museum, copyright University of Birmingham/David Bukachit)

About 4,500 years ago, people belonging to the Bronze Age era followed a tradition that may seem ghastly to us today. Residents of that period seem to have preserved the mortal remains or bone fragments of their loved ones as relics in their homes, according to a new study, which analyzed ancient bone fragments in Britain.

The relics seem to have belonged to connections of the living — direct family, a tradesperson, a friend or even an enemy, Dr Thomas Booth, lead author of the study, from the Francis Crick Institute, said. They were possibly used to share stories about the dead. During excavations, experts have found extra-human bones turning up in the graves of other humans. They also appeared in pits, ditches and waterholes in settlement sites, Dr Booth told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). "However, until now we didn’t know much about them: how they were separated from the rest of the remains, and why they end up in these contexts," he added.

Burial of a woman from Windmill Fields, Stockton-upon-Tees, accompanied by skulls and limb bones from at least three people. The three people represented by the skulls and long bones had died 60-170 years before the woman with whom they were buried (Tees Archaeology)

 

Dr Booth and his team set out to find answers to these questions through their study. First, they looked at extra bones found in graves and estimated the age using radiocarbon dating. The analysis showed that the bones were buried a significant period after the person's death, suggesting that remains were retained. In one of the graves, the team found a musical instrument carved out of a human thigh bone. But the practice of shaping bones into objects could be rare. And most of them were likely retained only as bone fragments. Many of these remains were from settlement sites, suggesting that they were kept among living communities. "There is at least one example of a skull recovered from a Bronze Age settlement which has been perforated in a way which suggests it may have been suspended or displayed," he explained.

Next, they tried to learn how ancient humans curated bodies. So they scanned the bone, looking for changes made by bacteria. They found that people did not follow any set protocol. Some split up the body after the cremation, some bones were exhumed after burial, and others were de-fleshed by allowing the body to decompose on the ground, Dr Booth explained. The study has opened up avenues to peek into traditions followed in the next period: Iron Age. "We accidentally sampled some remains dating to the Iron Age period, and the results here seemed to suggest human remains were being kept for even longer periods than in the Bronze Age," Dr Booth said. Further analysis will help them understand how human beliefs changed during the two epochs.

Dr Booth acknowledged that they could not rule out the possibility that people accidentally disturbed an old burial and deposited them elsewhere. "However", he said, "even if this was the case, the decision to ensure disturbed remains were buried in certain contexts on settlements or alongside other burials still provides a fascinating insight into the rituals and beliefs of people who lived in Britain during the Bronze Age".

The study is published in Antiquity.

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