Human Relics Dated Back to Bronze Age

Two Skeletons from Windmill Fields, Stockton-upon-Tees buried with skulls and long bones of three people who had died several decades to over a century earlier (Credit: Tees Archaeology)

(CN) — Researchers have dated human remains and tools, including a femur that was fashioned into a musical instrument, to the Bronze Age, providing insight on ancient humans’ funerary and memorialization practices.

“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 Joanna Brück, University of Bristol archaeologist and the project’s principal investigator, in a statement. “This suggests that Bronze Age people did not view human remains with the sense of horror or disgust that we might feel today.”

Brück worked with lead author Thomas Booth, a chemist at the Francis Crick Institute, to use radiocarbon dating and CT scanning technology to date the remains — found in the early 20th century across the British mainland — to 4,500 years ago, during Britain’s Bronze Age.

According to Booth, this period lasted from roughly 2,500 B.C. to about 800 B.C. in Britain, and features the first evidence of humans working copper and tin into bronze alloys.

At one burial site, a man was found buried with a dual-pronged bronze object, a stone battle axe, a bone plate, a boar tusk and — most strikingly — a musical instrument fashioned from a human femur.

“The bone was worked into a musical instrument, and eventually it was buried as a ‘grave good’ with an adult male individual underneath a round barrow that was quite close to Stonehenge, about three kilometers away,” Booth said in an interview with Courthouse News. “The musical instrument is the best account that we have of a broader practice where it seems that human remains were being kept, not for really long periods of time but still decades, and maybe turned into objects that could have been used in rituals or ceremonies.”

The instrument is broken, but Booth says it was likely played as a wind instrument; it is hollowed out, with grooves and holes added that could have changed the pitch of air whistling through it.

“The radiocarbon dating suggests that the person that the femur came from likely lived at the same time as the person it was buried with. They would have known one another, or at least not been too distant from one another in time. The significance of the use of that femur becomes something to do with the identity of that individual when they were alive. It could be that they were related familially,” Booth said. “It could be that they were a particularly skilled musician … a ritual specialist, perhaps.”

Booth and Brück also examined a woman buried in Windmill Fields, curiously accompanied by skulls and long limb bones from at least three other individuals — who all died between 60 and 170 years before the buried woman did.

These are but a few examples of how different Bronze Age Britain’s “funerary landscape” was to our own.

“It’s known that during this period, they had put perforations in [remains], which suggests this is the result of potentially being hung or displayed in houses,” Booth said. “It all points to [the dead] being quite present among the living, being viewed by the living people, aboveground.”

To verify the age of the remains and relics, Booth used a method known as radiocarbon dating. Bones preserve their collagen proteins very well, and these proteins contain carbon isotopes. Humans are constantly taking carbon-14 in, but upon death the carbon-14 begins to steadily decay into carbon-12. By examining the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in a bone’s collagen, scientists can find the age of human remains.

The scientists also took to the Natural History Museum in London to use microcomputed tomography to examine how microscopic bacteria changed the bone, which provides insight to how the decomposing bodies were treated.

Booth explained that the bacteria in our bones will alter them differently after death depending on how the body was treated: a butchered animal may have very little bacteria, whereas a fully articulated corpse would see high levels of bacteria “attack.” 

Similarly, human corpses buried near the surface of the ground will quickly be eaten by insects and scavenging animals, whereas mummification will leave more for the bacteria. The micro-CT scans helped Booth and Brück make educated guesses as to how the bodies were treated upon death.

As it turns out, there was no one common funerary rite. This was unsurprising, Booth explained; during the Bronze Age, burial and funeral practices varied widely. Trends came and went.

“There was no one funerary rite at any point in the Bronze Age. There’s several that are happening at once, and then the popularity of them shifts. At any one time you have people buried, cremated, excarnated, sometimes essentially mummified to some extent — although not in the same way that Egyptian people mummified people, just people being put in a box for a while to preserve them,” Booth said. “You have all these funerary rites happening at the same time through time.”

The pair’s research was published Monday in the journal Antiquity. As for future research, Booth says that he looks forward to conducting DNA analyses on some of the remains, as well as investigating an Iron Age skeleton that was discovered during other archaeological work.

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