Every culture has its own way of dealing with death, some of which can appear pretty strange to an outsider. But as death rituals go, the Stone Age burials on the Orkney Islands must be up there with the most bizarre and grisly.
A study on tombs in the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland, has found evidence that suggests the Neolithic islanders mutilated the remains of their ancestors by ripping off their flesh and mixing the remains of their chopped bones in mass graves like a gory pick 'n' mix bag of human remains.
The study of the macabre death rituals, led by Dr Rebecca Crozier of the University of the Philippines, was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Archaeologists conducted forensic reanalysis of over 12,275 bone fragments from two separate tombs at Quanterness and Quoyness that date back to the Neolithic period, between 2,400 BCE and 4,000 BCE.
A humerus bone showing unique signs of trauma, suggestive of scrapes. R Crozier/Journal of Archaeological Science.
A previous study of the fragments had concluded that the bones had been burned or buried until the flesh was decomposed. However, Dr. Crozier believes the presence of some 40 dents, 19 chop marks and three scrape marks on the bones suggest there was some form of violent and active dismemberment. After the bodies were dismembered, they were then mixed together with other bodies in a mass grave.
But what would drive people to do this to members of their family or community?
Dr. Crozier suggests it was “an expression of shared ancestral belonging.” She believes that the practice was a process of linking the individual to the wider collective group.
The flesh was apparently hacked off in order to ensure that all of the bodies were at a similar point of decomposition. The study explains: “Rate of decay may be influenced by situations ranging from, for example, the manner of death to the time of year. Therefore, death, and more specifically bodily decay, would have posed a serious challenge to the Neolithic Orcadians' ability to impose structure upon their world.”
The Orkney Islands are a treasure chest for archaeologists hoping to gain insights into the life of the early settlers of the British Isles. The archipelago of islands contains 72 known tombs, which date back to over 5,500 years ago. Among its many ancient delights is the “Ring of Brodgar”, a 104-meter (341-foot) wide circle of huge stone megaliths that could date back as early as 2,500 BCE.
It seems the Neolithic Orkney Island settlers weren’t the only ancient Britons doing strange things to their dead ancestors. Other studies have found that ancient Scottish islanders used to smoke dead bodies, chop up their remains, then cobble the bodies back together from a mishmash of different people.
A fragment of a lower jaw bone showing a fracture and scrape marks. R Crozier/Journal of Archaeological Science.