Macabre burial practices of Iron Age Britons revealed

4 March 2016

Human skull and bones

Prehistoric funerary rites may seem gruesome to us, but it's hard to deny that we've retained a morbid fascination with human remains © Kohy/Shutterstock.com

An analysis of 2,000-year-old bones suggests pre-Roman Britons frequently interacted with their dead, often by digging up corpses or retrieving decomposing body parts.

The study calls into question the prevailing 'sky burial' theory of Iron Age funerary rites, which holds that most bodies were left to decompose in the open.

Using a microscopic method, scientists found instead that practices included burial followed by exhumation within a decade, and exposure in grain-storage pits followed by the selective retrieval of decomposing body parts.

Just one example of sky burial - also known as excarnation, or defleshing - was found.

The research, carried out by scientists at the Museum and Cardiff University, is published in the March edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

'Our study shows that there was no concept of 'rest in peace' in the Iron Age,' says lead author Dr Tom Booth, a Museum researcher focusing on the analysis of ancient bones.

'It has often been thought that most dead bodies were left on the ground to decompose. But our study adds nuance, suggesting that a much wider range of rites were practised and that people interacted with decomposing bodies.'

Danebury hill fort skeleton

One of the few complete Iron Age skeletons found at the Danebury site. The remains of at least 300 individuals have been found, but no more than 40 have been complete skeletons. © Hampshire Cultural Trust

 

Resting in pieces

Researchers have long been puzzled by the archaeological record of human remains from Iron Age Britain.

Formal cemeteries are largely absent, especially in southern and central areas, and the remains only account for a small fraction of the Iron Age population.

One estimate suggested that just 6% of bodies were disposed of in a way that would show up in the archaeological record, with sky burial and underwater disposal often put forward as explanations for the scarcity of remains.

Even where Iron Age human bones are recovered, they are typically found in unusual configurations and at surprising locations.

Most are unearthed in various states of disarticulation - as individual bones or detached limbs - and some have been found in pits used to store grain.

A further obstacle is that different burial practices might result in similar-looking remains. For example, many recovered bones show the effects of considerable, but incomplete, microscopic bioerosion by bacteria.

It's difficult to tell how they ended up like this, because several practices might have produced similar results. The bones could have been either part-buried or covered in pits to protect them from scavengers and the elements.

Pit of human bones

Pits containing disarticulated skeletons were found at the Danebury site © Hampshire Cultural Trust

 

Seeing the light

To help get around this problem, the researchers used a technique known as thin-section light microscopy. By shining light through thin slices of bone, they were able to detect tiny differences not visible to the naked eye, and so distinguish different burial practices.

The team studied 20 bones from two sites in Hampshire: Danebury, the most extensively excavated Iron Age hill fort in Britain, and Suddern Farm.

It's the first time this technique has been used to analyse Iron Age human remains from Britain.

'Different types of funerary rites produce different levels of soft tissue decomposition, which is reflected in the microscopic bacterial degradation of the bone,' says Dr Booth.

'Microscopic analysis of archaeological bones gives us unparalleled insight into the myriad ways dead bodies were treated in prehistoric Britain.'

Just one of the bones showed signs of open-air defleshing, calling into question the widely held assumption that Iron Age bodies were disposed of chiefly through sky burial.

Instead, most of the remains seem to have been buried or part-exposed in deep grain-storage pits, with body parts later dug up.

Co-author Dr Richard Madgwick, from Cardiff University, explains: 'Some bodies were buried and exhumed years later, with certain bones removed, perhaps as ancestral relics.

'Other bodies were deposited in deep pits that may have been covered, and were returned to for the selection of decomposing parts, which were then deposited elsewhere.'

Dr Booth adds that all of this seems to have taken place surprisingly close to the settlement's dwellings.

There was no concept of a separate area for the dead - 'the decomposition and treatment of these bodies was potentially very public', he says.

Skull of St Yves

The skull of St Yves on display in Tréguier, Brittany, France. Dr Booth points out that human remains are often treated with great reverence even today. By Derepus (Foto zal gemaakt in de kerk) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Exhumation across the nation

So why were decomposing corpses treated in this way?

Dr Booth points out that although the funerary rites seem bizarre to us, they're far from unique in the grand sweep of British prehistory.

'From around 6,000 years ago, or even earlier, there is evidence that dead and decaying bodies and bones featured prominently in the lives of the living,' he says.

One theory is that the burial practices were intended to aid the soul's passage to the afterlife.

This seems to have been a common concern among prehistoric humans worldwide. An Egyptian mummy from around the same time period was found with astronomical maps painted on the coffin's inner lid, presumably to help the deceased navigate to the heavens.

But Dr Booth is wary of drawing any strong conclusions about the motivations behind prehistoric funerary rites.

'It is a very difficult question to answer, as there are no written records from Iron Age Britain to tell us what these people thought or believed.

'We have to rely on evidence for rites combined with other archaeological evidence that may relate to their society, belief and ideology.'

And it's far from obvious that the burial practices were conducted exclusively for the benefit of the dead.

'In many cultures, including our own, human remains are seen as innately powerful objects, and we may be looking at part of a ritual process designed to aid the living,' says Dr Booth.

It's possible that Iron Age Britons kept bones as ancestral relics, a sentiment that's arguably still strong today.

'Think of the importance some people place on saintly relics, or even Lenin's tomb in Moscow,' he says.

We rarely dig up corpses to retrieve decomposing limbs any more, but in other ways our attitudes towards the dead might not be all that different.

  • By Liam Proud

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