British researchers have uncovered a Bronze Age tradition of retaining and curating human remains as relics over several generations.
It’s a first, they say, made possible by radiocarbon dating and CT scanning, and provides a clue to how communities drew upon memory and the past to create their own social identities.
There already was evidence that people living in Britain 4500 years ago practised a range of funerary rites, but the new findings reveal that human remains were regularly kept and circulated among the living.
“Even in modern secular societies, human remains are seen as particularly powerful objects, and this seems to hold true for people of the Bronze Age,” says Thomas Booth from the University of Bristol, lead author of a paper in the journal Antiquity. “However, they treated and interacted with the dead in ways which are inconceivably macabre to us today.”
After analysing human remains and other materials buried with them, the researchers found that many partial remains were buried a significant time after a person died.
Booth says people seem to have curated the remains of people who likely played an important role in their life or their communities, or with whom they had a well-defined relationship – whether as friend or foe.
In one example, a human thigh bone found in Wiltshire had been crafted to make a musical instrument and buried alongside a man found close to Stonehenge. The carefully carved and polished artefact was found with other items, including stone and bronze axes, a bone plate, a tusk and a unique ceremonial pronged object.
Radiocarbon dating suggests it belonged to someone this person knew during their lifetime.
“Although fragments of human bone were included as grave goods with the dead, they were also kept in the homes of the living, buried under house floors and even placed on display”, says principal investigator Joanna Brück.
The researchers also used microcomputed tomography (micro-CT) at the Natural History Museum in London to look at changes to bones produced by bacteria, to get a sense of how bodies were treated while decomposing.
Scans showed some were cremated before being split up, some were exhumed after burial, and some were de-fleshed by being left to decompose on the ground.
“This suggests that there was no established protocol for the treatment of bodies whose remains were destined to be curated, and the decisions and rites leading to the curation of their remains took place afterwards,” Booth says.