A Bronze Age burial, with the skeleton in a crouching posisiton still half buried in the ground.

There was a huge diversity of funerary rituals in Bronze Age Britain, from leaving the body to decompose on the surface to cremation, and a whole variety in between © Tees Archaeology

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Some Bronze Age Britons turned the bones of dead relatives into musical instruments

Bronze Age people were keeping human body parts and preserving them, even turning some of them into objects such as musical instruments.

New research has found that it was likely that these remains belonged to people that the living knew in life.

During the Bronze Age in Britain (2500–600 BC), people were dealing with their dead in a large range of ways.

In some cases, disarticulated bones have been found in other people's graves and in the foundations of houses and boundaries of settlements.

Who these remains belonged to has long been uncertain, and there are a few competing theories about them. One of these theories is that they once belonged to people who had died hundreds or maybe even thousands of years earlier.

Dr Tom Booth, a former postdoctoral researcher at the Museum now based at The Francis Crick Institute, has been trying to solve the mystery.  

'It has been suggested that these remains were something akin to saintly relics,' says Tom. 'That they are reflecting mythical or legendary figures that existed way back in the past and who no one living would have known personally.'

But by radiocarbon dating the remains, Tom and his colleagues have shown that this was unlikely to be the case. In fact, it is probable that the people who were keeping and curating body parts, bones and cremated remains knew the person they came from when that person was alive.

The results have been published in the journal Antiquity

Stonehenge from the air, showing the circle of stones in the middle surrounded by a circular ditch.

Arguably Stonehenge is the most famous of all Bronze Age sites, and has revealed a number of human burials © Darren Tennant/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Displaying human remains

The remains of disarticulated human bodies are often found at Bronze Age sites, but we don't know exactly what was going on during this time.

It appears that there were two separate phases during this period. In the earlier phase, between 2,500 to 1,500 BC, settlements evidence is fairly scarce. Instead, there are lots of burial sites, where odd extra pieces of human bone turn up.

In the second phase, from 1,500 to 600 BC, this pattern is seemingly reversed as there is more settlement evidence but fewer formal graves. During this time, disarticulated bones appear more in domestic settings.

'These bits of bones are turning up in features such as water holes, in the post holes of houses or field systems enclosed by ditches,' explains Tom. 'Often you get just part of a skull or part of a long bone just inserted into the ditch.'

While some bones may have ended up in homes, fields and other burials by accident, it is likely that these remains were ritually buried in a form of ceremony, after having been looked after and curated by the living.

A rectangular piece of bone, showing a drilled hole through its side.

A piece of bone also found among the grave goods in Wilsford, with clear evidence that it has been worked. Wiltshire Museum © University of Birmingham / David Bukachit

In some cases the bones may have been displayed. For instance, some fragments of skull have holes in them, suggesting that they may have once been hung up or displayed in houses.

The question that Tom and his colleagues wanted to answer, however, was whether those who were keeping the remains were likely to have known the people they came from.  

Musical bones

To do this, the team radiocarbon dated both the disarticulated bones and organic matter from the hole in which they were found. As radiocarbon dating tells you when something or someone died, they could compare the dates of the bone, representing the death date of that person, and that of accompanying organic material, giving the likely date when the human bones were buried.

It turned out that the people had often died decades before they were put in the ground.

'On average it was a couple of generations, so about 60 years, that these remains were being kept,' explains Tom. 'This means that the bones probably came from people who had lived in the community or were being kept among those who knew the person who the bone once belonged to.

'The evidence suggests that people were curating and keeping these bones, but it wasn't for hundreds or thousands of years, it was maybe for a few decades, perhaps up to a couple of centuries.'

This is true even for one specimen that appears to have been turned into a musical instrument.

A human thigh bone that had been carved into a whistle was found as a grave good in the burial of an adult male close to Stonehenge in Wilsford. When dated, it revealed that the thigh bone came from a person who probably lived around the same date as the man that it was buried with, meaning it is likely that it was someone that they knew in life, or were fairly close to.

The musical instrument and other grave goods are on display at the Wiltshire Museum

A human thigh bone that has been turned into a whistle, broken at one end, with marks along its sharft.

The human thigh bone found in the grave of another man, which is thought to have been turned into a musical instrument © Wiltshire Museum

Using the remains of someone close to fashion a musical instrument may sound macabre, but it is not dissimilar to some practices still around today. That desire to keep loved ones close has manifested in companies that will turn the remains of relatives into paintings, jewellery, or even tattoos.

'The cremations we do today sanitise the human remains so that the living can deal with them without feeling like they are encountering anything that is too gruesome,' says Tom. 'But I think there are still hints in modern societies of the power of human remains and of people's individual identity getting attached to part of their remains after they died.'

A diversity of rituals

The work by Tom and his colleagues help to show just how diverse the funerary practices during the Bronze Age were.

While today in Britain there are only really two main ways to deal with the remains of the dead, either cremation or burial, back in the Bronze Age there were a number of different practices.

These include everything from simply leaving the body to decompose on the surface of the ground to cremation, and all the variations in between.

'There didn't seem to be any one way in which they would deal with a dead body,' explains Tom. 'And they practiced all of these different customs at the same time.

'What then actually lies behind the decision to treat bodies in different ways is hard to know and is quite elusive. It suggests that there was quite a lot of complex ideology going on behind all this ritual, which may be a difficult idea for those of us who live in Britain today to grasp when we have generally restricted ourselves to only cremation or burial.'