Bristol University uncover Bronze Age tradition of keeping human remains

Human thigh bone crafted to make a musical instrument buried with a man found near Stonehenge. Credit: University of Bristol

Researchers at Bristol University have found people living in the Bronze Age kept human remains as relics and turned them into things like musical instruments.

Academics said that while the findings may seem eerie or gruesome by today's standards, they show a way of honouring and remembering the dead.

Dr Thomas Booth and Prof Bruck, behind the study, said that in modern secular societies human remains are seen as powerful objects, and this was also true of the Bronze Age. But Dr Booth said "they treated and interacted with the dead in ways which are inconceivably macabre to us today."

Radiocarbon dating and CT scanning was used to examine bones from 4,500 years ago and revealed a tradition of retaining and curating human remains as relics over several generations.

Credit: PA

In one example from Wiltshire, a human thigh bone had been crafted to make a musical instrument and was included with the burial of a man found close to Stonehenge.

The carefully carved and polished artefact was found with other items - including stone and bronze axes, a bone plate and a tusk - and is now displayed in the Wiltshire Museum.

A micro-CT scanner revealed that some bodies would be cremated before being 'split up' and some were exhumed after burial.

Dr Booth said "this suggests that there was no established protocol for the treatment of bodies whose remains were destined to be curated, and the decisions and rites leading to the curation of their remains took place afterwards."

However, this research reveals the dead were encountered not just in a funerary context, but that human remains were regularly kept and circulated among the living.

Dr Booth said the findings may show how Bronze Age communities in Britain drew on memory and the past to create their own social identities.