Human remains were kept as relics in the Bronze Age

Hyperaxion Sep 3, 2020

Skeletons found in Britain indicate that people kept objects (and bones) from close relatives and important figures in their communities.

During the Bronze Age (4000 BC – 500 BC), people who lived in the region of Great Britain had a somewhat peculiar habit. After performing a kind of curatorship, they kept the remains of other people as relics, which were passed on from generation to generation.

Human remains were kept as relics in the Bronze Age
Remains of a woman who was buried with skulls and limb bones from at least 3 people who died between 60 and 170 years before her. (Credit: Tees Archeology).

In an article published in the August issue of the journal Antiquity, researchers at the University of Bristol, UK, report the unprecedented finding.

As the scientists explain, this custom was a tangible way of honoring and remembering the dead, passing on their legacy to other nearby communities for generations.

“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,” said Dr. Thomas Booth, the study’s leader, who works at the University of Bristol.

Musical instrument made of human thigh bone.
Musical instrument made of human thigh bone. (Credit: Wiltshire Museum).

As they studied remains scattered across Britain, archaeologists began to realize that many bones were buried long after their owners died, suggesting that they were kept for some reason.

The researchers found that they were relics after analyzing the results of the radiocarbon dating and microcomputed tomography (micro-CT).

According to Booth, people kept the remains of individuals who were important in their lives or their communities, such as family, friends, and enemies. “They had a relic to remember and perhaps tell stories about them,” Booth said.

Among all the analyzed artifacts, one stood out: a human thigh bone found in Wiltshire, which was carved in the shape of a musical instrument.

The object was found buried with another skeleton, along with other items, including stone and bronze axes, a bone plate, a tusk, and a sharp metal object.

“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,” said principal investigator Joanna Brück, a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Sharp bronze object found in Wilsford next to the musical instrument.
Sharp bronze object found in Wilsford next to the musical instrument. (Credit: Wiltshire Museum / University of Birmingham / David Bukachit).

“This suggests that Bronze Age people did not view human remains with the sense of horror or disgust that we might feel today.”

The team used microcomputer tomography (micro-CT) at the Natural History Museum to observe microscopic changes in the bones, caused by bacteria, and find an indication of what the remains went through while decomposing.

The analysis showed that the skeletons were treated similarly to other human remains from the Bronze Age.

“Some had been cremated before being split up, some bones were exhumed after burial, and some had been de-fleshed by being left to decompose on the ground,” Dr. Booth said.

“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.”

The findings indicate that Bronze Age communities relied on the past to create their own social identities.

“This study really highlights the strangeness and perhaps the unknowable nature of the distant past from a present-day perspective,” Dr. Booth said.

“It seems the power of these human remains lay in the way they referenced tangible relationships between people in these communities and not as a way of connecting people with a distant mythical past.”

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