Human Remains Of Family Members Were Kept As Heirlooms In Bronze Age Britain

A human femur turned into a musical instrument, found in Wiltshire near to the site of Stonehenge. Image provided courtesy of Wiltshire Museum

What better way to honor your fallen family member than a musical flute made out of their leg bone? 

Archeologists studying human bones from Bronze Age Britain around 4,500 years ago have discovered over 20 instances where human remains were kept long after their death, as if the bones served as a relic that was passed down among family members as an heirloom. Eventually, after a few generations, the bones were then laid to rest alongside a family member.

In one of the most extreme examples, the researchers found a human thigh bone that was crafted into a musical instrument and buried alongside a man not far from the site of Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating of the musical instrument suggests it belonged to someone the owner knew during their lifetime.

Researchers from the University of Bristol in the UK and the Francis Crick Institute's Ancient Genomics Laboratory used CT scans and radiocarbon dating on dozens of humans bones in a bid to understand how ancient people in Britain dealt with their human remains. Their study was published in the journal Antiquity today. 

"We can get an idea of how long these bones had been curated by doing some statistical modeling of the radiocarbon dates of the human bones and the materials which accompanied them," Dr Tom Booth, study author and senior research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute's Pontus Skoglund Laboratory, told IFLScience.

A skeleton found in North Yorkshire alongside the skulls and long bones of an additional three individuals. Image provided courtesy of Tees Archaeology

"So, to figure out if and for how long human bones had been curated, we radiocarbon dated human bones to get the date of death of the individual, and also radiocarbon dated something else. For instance, an animal bone or charred seeds," he added.

It appears the human remains were only kept for around 60 years on average, so usually for around two generations after the person had died. This suggests the bones were kept to honor close relatives who were still in living memory. Their findings also showed that human remains were dealt with in an array of different ways: some had been cremated, some had been buried then exhumed, and some had been de-fleshed by being left to decompose above ground. 

As with any archaeological discovery from the ancient past, we can only speculate about the meaning these objects held. However, while the practice of collecting your family members' bones might seem grisly to many, the researchers argue it's perhaps not so different from the way many contemporary cultures memorialize and recognize the dead in the 21st century. 

"You could argue there are remnants of this impulse to keep human remains amongst the living in modern Western societies today. This is manifested in people keeping hold of urns containing cremations, but also companies which offer to turn cremated remains into paintings, diamonds, and other things," explained Dr Booth.

"All of these processes sanitize the human remains to make them less gruesome and more palatable to modern sensibilities. For example, with modern cremation, compared to ancient cremations, there is an extra step called ‘cremulation’ where surviving bone fragments that are recognizably human are ground down to dust. Obviously, the ideological and ritual background is a lot different, and it is likely in the Bronze Age there was a lot more emphasis on handling and interacting with remains that were recognizably human, but the essence is there," added Booth.

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