Archaeologists have long puzzled over a strange phenomenon observed in Bronze Age graves and settlements across Great Britain: namely, the presence of small bones and disarticulated remains buried not with their owners, but other humans entirely.
“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,” says Joanna Brück, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, in a statement.
Competing theories exist regarding why—and how—these small fragments of human remains ended up in the possession of other Bronze Age Britons. As Tom Booth, an ancient genomics researcher at the London Natural History Museum, explains in a second statement, some experts have argued that ancient humans viewed the bones as saintly relics associated with mythical or religious figures who died hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years prior.
Now, new research published in the journal Antiquity suggests that Bronze Age humans were much more familiar with these strange remains than previously thought. Using radiocarbon dating, Booth and Brück found that many Britons were buried with small, curated keepsakes crafted out of the remains of family members. Often, these bones belonged to people just a few generations older than their new caretakers—in other words, Bronze Age men and women may have known the relatives personally.
“Our study indicates that Bronze Age people were accustomed to handling the bones of the dead, even in their day-to-day lives,” Brück tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “ … “Radiocarbon dating of curated bones suggests that Bronze Age people’s sense of identity and belonging was based on their links to known kin who had died in the past few decades rather than to distant and anonymous ancestor.”
Among other items, the researchers studied human bones possibly shaped into amulets or keepsakes and a perforated skull whose holes suggest it may have been used as an ornament or home decoration. Bronze Age people probably interred these kinds of bones near fields and homes as part of burial rituals, according to the Natural History Museum statement.
“Even in modern secular societies, human remains are seen as particularly powerful objects, and this seems to hold true for people of the Bronze Age,” Booth tells BBC News. “However, they treated and interacted with the dead in ways which are inconceivably macabre to us today.”
The scientists cite a 3,700-year-old thigh bone carved into a whistle or musical instrument as a prime example of such “macabre” practices. The whistle was later buried in a man’s grave near Stonehenge, reports Rory Sullivan for CNN.
Per the museum, radiocarbon testing demonstrated that the modified bone belonged to someone who lived around the same time as the man, making it likely that the individual was someone he knew in life or was “fairly close to.”
In addition to dating the remains, Booth and Brück used micro-CT technology to obtain a microscopic view of the bones and determine how they were prepared for burial. The pair found that some bodies were allowed to decompose in the open air before their bones were modified, while others were cremated or buried and later exhumed.
As Brück explains in the Bristol statement, the findings indicate that Bronze Age communities living in Britain used memories of the past to create their own social identities.
“It’s likely you have a whole ceremonial smorgasbord of what you can do with human remains and we just see glimpses of the various ways in which they were used,” Booth tells the Guardian. “Humans remains always have some intrinsic power. Perhaps they brought some comfort.”