Bronze Age Death Rituals Included Curating Remains Of Predecessors
No two people deal with death in exactly the same way. Both on the individual and societal level we have to face the inevitable. These days many people turn to their religious, scientific, or spiritual beliefs to cope and make sense of the end of someone’s life. But what happened in the past? Researchers have now uncovered, for the first time, evidence that Bronze Age death rituals in Britain sometimes included holding onto or curating the remains of a cherished individual over several generations. This practice allowed people to remember the departed long after they had left the world of the living.
Bronze Age Death Rituals Varied
Funerary practices in the area of what is now Britain varied during the Bronze Age. Past research has shown us that people were either buried, cremated, mummified, had their bodies placed in bogs , or sometimes their remains were interred in the houses of the living. Now another death ritual can be added to that list – the curation of bones from an older grave to include them in a newer burial.
These practices may seem strange to us today, but as Dr. Thomas Booth of the University of Bristol , lead author in the current study and a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London, told Ancient Origins “The ample evidence we have of people messing around with human remains in the Bronze Age suggests it [the curation of bones] wasn’t always seen as something negative, and in many cases it was a positive action.”
A reconstruction of a British Bronze/Iron Age roundhouse. (Mark_M/ CC BY 2.0 ) Sometimes human remains were interred in the houses of the living.
I asked Dr. Booth why he thinks there was such variety to death rituals in this region at that time, and his answer was enlightening:
“In part this was probably because there was no ‘religion’ in the way we think of it today which dictated how the dead should be treated. However, the ideology behind the variable treatment is elusive. So far no-one’s found any obvious connection with things like sex or age. It’s difficult because we are likely missing a good proportion of the dead from these periods – people who were treated in ways which left no archaeological record. For instance, if the remains were just left to decompose exposed to the elements, deposited in a body of water or if a person’s cremated remains were scattered in a landscape.”
Dr. Booth also offers some possible explanations why certain choices were made when it came time to decide what would happen with the body of the deceased:
“Season of death might have had some practical influence on the decision making. It might be more difficult to cremate people in cold, wet weather for instance. Otherwise, there may have been an aspect of personal preference, or a belief system which mandated a particular rite based upon parts of an individual’s identity or life that we cannot see archaeologically. For instance, if someone had a particular skill or position within the community.”
The diversity in mortuary practices in Bronze Age Britain makes the area and time period ideal for researchers who have an interest in understanding how people handled death and what happened after death in the past. As Dr. Booth, explained, “initially they [Bronze Age mortuary practices] can look quite simple, but delve a little deeper and there is a wealth of complexity in each grave. Each site where you have human remains becomes a mini detective story where you’re trying to figure out what processes and mindsets could have produced such varied configurations of human remains .”
Who doesn’t love a good detective story?
Reconstruction of a Bronze Age Beaker burial at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
How Many of the Burials were Shared with Curated Remains?!
To find out more about this fascinating topic, the researchers, who have just published their study in the journal Antiquity, decided to explore the ancient funerary rites by analyzing grave goods in burials. Their study revealed a surprising practice that other researchers seem to have missed – that the curation of humans remains was an important practice at the time.
In fact, the researchers state that the analysis of the grave goods, which included CT scans and radiocarbon dating, showed that 26 of the 60 Chalcolithic, Bronze Age , and Iron Age archaeological contexts that were tested, “contained human bones that were anomalously older than the dates relating to their deposition.” That is 43 percent of the burials; definitely enough to warrant further exploration of this topic.
The researchers looked at grave goods, such as these findings from Wilsford near Stonehenge. This burial included a rare human bone turned into a flute. (Credit: Wiltshire Museum /David Dawson)
However not all of the curated bones were human. Although it did not appear too often in this study, there have been some cases of older faunal remains found in a later grave as well. Dr. Booth proposes that if these animal bones were not an accidental addition,
“You could imagine a lot of different situations that might explain this – some may have been the remnants of feasts that took place during important rites of passage of particular significant people. The biography of the animal may have given their remains a particular ritual significance, for instance if it had been sacrificed. It may be that the social boundaries separating humans and animals were not so strong, and these animal bones were curated for similar reasons to the human bones. People and communities could have had important social relationships with particular animals.”
This is an area that may be explored more in the future, but the focus in this study was human remains – and there is more than enough information provided by this project to hold our interest!
It seems that many people living during the Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age decided to keep and modify the bones as relics for several generations. Sometimes, the remains were found in a new grave six generations after the death of the older individual. But this was not the norm, Dr. Booth told Ancient Origins: “While there was evidence that human remains were being kept and curated, this wasn’t necessarily for very long periods of time – 60 years on average, so around two generations.”
The focus in this study was the British Bronze Age death rituals, but some of the human bones which they sampled were dated to the Iron Age (c.700 BC-43 AD). Dr. Booth notes how “the bones that were being curated in those periods were a lot older than the ones that were being curated in the Bronze Age. Some of them looked to have been hundreds to thousands of years old when they were buried.”
The Big Question – Why?
The length of time between when a person died and when their remains were curated to be placed in another person’s burial can tell us a lot about why people performed this ritual. Dr. Booth says, “This gives us a flash of insight into who these communities were deciding to remember and why, long before written records.”
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So, who did they decide to remember in this way? According to Dr. Booth:
“It’s likely the bones belonged to people individuals or communities knew in life or belonged at least to people whose identity was known. This means their importance is likely to be related to their relationship to the living, whether that’s family or other types of kin, their skills, or their influential deeds in life. They weren’t using these human relics to hark back to distant mythical pasts – it was the tangible relationships with people they knew that were important.”
But the nature of those relationships between people is more complex than you may expect. It wasn’t necessarily a case of people bringing the remains of family members into later burials. One clear example of the non-necessity of familial ties between the human remains in the study is the case of skulls and limb bones of at least three people accompanying the burial of a woman found in Windmill Fields, Stockton-upon-Tees. Dr. Booth says that “the skulls were probably 60-170 years old when this person died.”
Skeleton 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 / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
When they conducted DNA analysis on the remains they found “that one of the skulls at least was not a close or at least direct genetic ancestor of the woman it was buried with.” This shows that the people sharing a grave did not have to be blood relatives. The funerary ritual was “not just focused on ‘genetic’ relatives or family lineages but likely encompassed a whole range of social relationships,” Dr. Booth said. “These rites weren’t necessarily about referencing your lineage back to a distant ancestor, but acknowledging a range of social relationships that affected your life or the lives of people you knew.”
The way human remains were treated could also differ. In one bizarre example, a human femur that was found in a grave near Stonehenge was turned into a musical instrument and then buried with another man. It was excavated alongside other grave goods including stone and bronze axes, a bone plate, a tusk, and a unique pronged object. When the human femur bone flute was radiocarbon dated, the researchers found that it was probably created from the remains of someone who was known to the owner of the grave.
The Next Steps
There is still the possibility that family relations could have been a factor in at least some of the examples of bones being curated. Dr. Booth said that DNA analysis is one of the areas that future research will focus on, “to see how far genetic relationships did or didn’t have any bearing on curation of human remains.”
He would also like to “use stable isotope analyses to look at mobility.” This could help researchers find out if there is a difference between where someone grew up and where their remains ended up. Dr. Booth considers that it is even possible that “Curated human remains could have been incorporated into existing systems of exchange.” For example, this may be the case if an individual was valued or had high recognition in more than one society.
Finally, the unexpected inclusion of the Iron Age samples in this study, and the difference between the timeframes between death and the curation of the remains has caused Dr. Booth to consider exploring “whether this reflects a change in ideology and belief” between people living in the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
Even if researchers continue to focus on the Bronze Age death rites of Britain, the diversity of burial practices and the mystery surrounding them provides many exciting directions to take future studies.
The report is published by Antiquity, Tuesday 1 st September, https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.152
Top Image: Bronze Age death rituals sometimes included curated remains, such as this s keleton that was buried with skulls and long bones of three people who had died much earlier. Source: Tees Archaeology / Antiquity Publications Ltd