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Radiocarbon dating and CT scans reveal Bronze Age tradition of keeping human remains

2 September 2020

Using radiocarbon dating and CT scanning to study ancient bones, a University of Bristol research led by the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology's Honorary Professor Joanna Bruck, has uncovered for the first time a Bronze Age tradition of retaining and curating human remains as relics over several generations.

While the findings, led by the University of Bristol and published in the journal Antiquity, may seem eerie or even gruesome by today’s convention, they indicate a tangible way of honouring and remembering known individuals between close communities and generations some 4,500 years ago.

“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. However, they treated and interacted with the dead in ways which are inconceivably macabre to us today,” said lead author, Dr Thomas Booth, who carried out the radiocarbon dating work at the university’s School of Chemistry.

“After radiocarbon dating Bronze Age human remains alongside other materials buried with them, we found many of the partial remains had been buried a significant time after the person had died, suggesting a tradition of retaining and curating human remains.”

“People seem to have curated the remains of people who had lived within living or cultural memory, and who likely played an important role in their life or their communities, or with whom they had a well-defined relationship, whether that was direct family, a tradesperson, a friend or even an enemy, so they had a relic to remember and perhaps tell stories about them,” said Dr Booth.

In one extraordinary case from Wiltshire, a human thigh bone had been crafted to make a musical instrument and included as a grave good with the burial of a man found close to Stonehenge. The carefully carved and polished artefact, found with other items, including stone and bronze axes, a bone plate, a tusk, and a unique ceremonial pronged object, are displayed in the Wiltshire Museum. Radiocarbon dating of this musical instrument suggests it belonged to someone this person knew during their lifetime.

“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”, said Professor Brück, principal investigator on the project.

“This suggests that Bronze Age people did not view human remains with the sense of horror or disgust that we might feel today.”

 

 

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