People living in Bronze Age Britain kept human remains as relics and even crafted them into musical instruments, a new study has suggested.
By examining ancient bones from 28 sites across the United Kingdom, researchers discovered, through radiocarbon dating — a test to determine age — and CT scanning, that remains were sometimes used as ritual objects.
In the most striking example, the team found that a 3,700-year-old human thigh bone had been made into a music instrument similar to a whistle, before later being buried in a man’s grave near Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, southwestern England.
“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,” Joanna Brück, one of the study authors and an honorary professor at the University of Bristol, said in a statement.
The study, which was a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the Natural History Museum, London, was published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity.
“This suggests that Bronze Age people did not view human remains with the sense of horror or disgust that we might feel today,” Brück added.
Remembering the dead
Although these Bronze Age practices might seem macabre to modern-day sensibilities, Thomas Booth, an archaeological researcher and lead author on the study, told CNN that there are similarities between them and how the dead are commemorated today.
Pointing out that companies now turn cremation ash into diamonds, paintings and other objects, he said this type of process shows a “similar impulse” to the Bronze Age rites but one that is “hyper-sanitized to get rid of the gruesomeness of it all.”
There was no set way that bodies would be treated in the Bronze Age before their bones were curated by the living, according to Booth. Some were exhumed following burial, while others were cremated or were left to decompose in the open air.
The human remains were kept for between “a few decades” and “a couple of centuries,” he added, suggesting that they could have been buried once the deceased had “passed out of living or cultural memory.”