During the Bronze Age, between 3000 BC and 1200 BC, people in Britain remembered the dead by keeping parts of their human remains and crafting them into ornaments and instruments, a recent study has found.
A pair of researchers from the University of Bristol closely examined ancient bones recovered from 28 sites across the United Kingdom, and found that at some places people were buried with human bones or artefacts made from the bones of others, The Guardian reported.
“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 authors of the study, said in a statement, according to CNN.
A particularly remarkable find was a 37,000-year-old human thigh bone that was polished and carved into a whistle. The instrument was discovered in a grave near the prehistoric Stonehenge in Wiltshire, southwestern England. Through carbon dating — a process which helps ascertain the age of a relic — the researchers found that the artefact was from someone who lived around the same time as the person who was buried with the whistle, The Guardian reported.
“Our study indicates that bronze age people were accustomed to handling the bones of the dead, even in their day-to-day lives,” Bruck said. “Bones belonging to significant ancestors were curated as relics, and even made into artefacts, some of which may have been used or displayed in the homes of the living.”
The remains of another woman were discovered in Windmill Fields, Stockton-on-Tees, along with skulls and limb bones from at least three other people who are believed to have died 60 to 170 years before her.
Using a procedure called microcomputed tomography (Micro-CT), the researchers found how the ancient bones were preserved and curated during the bronze age. The micro-CT images showed that some of the bones were fished out after the body was curated, while others had been exhumed. Some had even been left to decompose in the open air.
While preserving the bones of the dead and turning them into ornaments may seem macabre to some today, Thomas Booth — the University of Bristol archaeologist who carbon dated the remains — said that it can be compared to some customs observed today, such as keeping the cremated ashes of the dead in an urn.