Exploring evidence for Bronze Age curation of the dead
Archaeologists have long puzzled over fragments of human bone that have been found scattered around late Bronze Age settlements and placed in early Bronze Age burials like grave goods. Carly Hilts examines a recent study that sheds intriguing light on these enigmatic practices.
Around 3,700 years ago, an elaborate funeral was taking place. The Bronze Age man being commemorated appears to have been well-respected by his community, as he was laid to rest beneath an imposing burial mound some 121ft in diameter and 11ft high (the largest of the 19 barrows of the Wilsford cemetery, which stood around 13 miles from Stonehenge), accompanied by an impressive array of artefacts. These included stone and bronze axes, a small bone plate perforated with two holes, a boar’s tusk, a grooved stone, and a unique pronged object made of bronze. Another of the grave goods was even more striking, however: a musical instrument carefully crafted from a human thigh bone.
One end of the femur had been worked to form a mouthpiece, as if for a horn or trumpet, while a side hole was also noted at the time of its excavation in the early 19th century (though later damage has rendered this aspect invisible). The object had been carefully finished with a highly polished surface, suggesting that it was a valuable and prized possession. Perhaps it was even specially made for the individual with whom it was buried. But whose remains had been used to create it? Recent radiocarbon dating (of which, more below) suggests that this was not an ancient ancestral relic, but that the person that the femur came from could have died within living memory of the barrow-builders. What does this enigmatic instrument signify?
The Wilsford femur (which today is displayed at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes) represents just one aspect of the remarkably diverse funerary traditions known to have been practised in Bronze Age Britain. In addition to more familiar rites, like intact inhumation and cremation, we also see evidence of excarnation, where bodies were exposed to the elements and scavenging animals, as well as intriguing signs of postmortem modification. Evidence for mummification has been identified at sites including Cladh Hallan on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides (where two bodies discovered beneath the foundations of Bronze Age roundhouses proved to be composites created from parts of six individuals who had died centuries apart – see CA 265 and 273) and at Canada Farm in Dorset, where long bones had been drilled as if to hold corpses together (CA 279). Human remains were turned into objects, too – not just musical instruments, but apparent amulets and other keepsakes – and sometimes seem to have been fragmented and placed in early Bronze Age burials like grave goods, or in the boundary ditches and pits associated with late Bronze Age settlements.
It is these fragments that have recently attracted the attention of Professor Joanna Brück of the University of Bristol and University College Dublin, and Dr Thomas Booth (then affiliated with the Natural History Museum and the University of Bristol, now at the Francis Crick Institute). It has long been understood that objects such as necklaces and daggers were fragmented and circulated among Bronze Age communities as heirlooms for many generations; might human remains have been treated similarly? To investigate this question, Brück and Booth needed to find out when the individuals had died and when their partial remains had been buried – if there was a significant gap between the two dates, this might suggest that the bones had been curated for some time before their final deposition.
Previous investigations have hinted at the intriguing ways in which Bronze Age Britons interacted with the dead. But how do we interpret these enigmatic practices? Does the discovery of disarticulated or partial remains within the grave of another individual point to the presence of an earlier accidentally disturbed grave, or deliberate inclusion of the bones? Where deposits of cremated bone are too light to represent an entire body (as is often the case in Bronze Age burials), might we imagine mourners failing to retrieve every piece of burnt bone from the pyre, or might some of the remains have been divided up among those who attended the cremation, as some kind of memento of the deceased? The project’s findings, recently published in Antiquity journal (see ‘Further reading’ below) add thought-provoking new insights to an already fascinating picture.
To investigate questions of curation, the researchers examined cremated and unburnt human remains spanning the whole of the Bronze Age and the very start of the Iron Age (2450-600 BC). Each sample either represented bone that did not belong to a grave’s primary occupant, or which had been recovered from domestic pits or ditches. In order to minimise the likelihood of these representing accidental deposits, the team focused on large, recognisably human elements (skulls and long bones) that had been placed on apparently prepared surfaces. These bones were radiocarbon dated to establish when each individual had died, and the same analysis was applied to organic materials from the same or associated contexts – charcoal, animal bones, hazelnut shells – to help pin down the earliest date that they are likely to have been buried.
Some 82 radiocarbon dates were produced, which were combined with a further 121 previously published radiocarbon dates that had been produced for disarticulated human bones, cremated remains, and associated materials from Canada Farm, Cladh Hallan, and Windmill Fields (see below for more on this last site) – all places where evidence for the preservation and modification of human remains had already been observed. The results were striking: 42% of the Bronze Age bones were ‘too old’ for their burial context, and these anomalous results spanned all phases of the period. On average, the remains were 65 years older than the date they had been buried, but these intervals ranged from 16 to 167 years. What does this mean?
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, there are reasons why human remains may appear too old that do not involve deliberate curation. If, in life, a person got most of the protein in their diet from fish, for example, this can create something called a ‘reservoir effect’ (see CA 335, ‘Science Notes’) which skews radiocarbon results to appear earlier than a skeleton’s true age. However, analysis of isotopes (chemical signatures preserved in bones and teeth that can shed light on a person’s diet) in Bronze Age human remains from across Britain suggests that the population at this time consumed very little fish – for reasons that remain unknown, though given that availability was not an issue, it is possible that some kind of cultural taboo was at work.
In the case of cremated bone, dating can also be affected by carbon exchange between the human remains and the pyre fuel during burning. This process causes bone to partially or wholly take on the carbon signature of the fuel which, if it comes from the heartwood of a long-lived species like oak, could produce what is known as an ‘old wood effect’, again creating a distorted radiocarbon result. In the recently published study, though, the cremated bones identified as ‘anomalously old’ did not yield dates that were out of keeping with the ‘too old’ unburnt bone, the team reports, whereas you would expect the old wood effect to create a much more uneven spread of results.
In short, it does appear that where the examined remains were significantly earlier than the date of their final burial, this is best explained by human intervention: that the bones had been retained or recovered after their owner’s death, and had been kept for some years before being committed to the ground for the last time. Brück and Booth appear to have discovered the first clear evidence for systematic curation of human bones during the Bronze Age. So, what does this signify?
Something particularly interesting about the results is that they indicate that, while human remains appear to have been curated during the Bronze Age, they were only kept for a relatively short time – averaging only a few decades, or the equivalent of perhaps two generations. This suggests that the remains being retained were not the relics of long-distant figures, semi-legendary ancestors associated with entire communities, but that the individuals whose bones were preserved may have been known by the people who wanted to keep them close, or had at least existed during living memory.
It is possible that the curators and the curated had a defined personal relationship, the researchers suggest – though whether their bones were kept and perhaps circulated as tangible reminders of departed friends and family, mementoes of a cherished community elder, or trophies representing a vanquished enemy remains a matter for speculation. Brück and Booth suggest that the power of these fragments may have derived from the identity of the curated individual and their relationship with the living: it could be that they were buried for a final time once the person was on the verge of passing from social memory.
How would such remains have been obtained? Three possibilities are suggested by the team. First, that disarticulated bones were exhumed from earlier graves once bodies had become skeletonised. A potentially illuminating case-study here is Windmill Fields at Ingleby Barwick, North Yorkshire, where the early Bronze Age burial of an adult woman was accompanied by disarticulated crania and long bones belonging to at least three other people – an adult man, an adult woman, and a possibly adolescent girl. The two adult crania were notably earlier in date than the intact burial – but they were contemporary with a collection of disarticulated human remains which was discovered in a wooden funerary structure excavated a few metres away. Might the crania have been retrieved from the wooden cist, and was this container some kind of repository from which significant remains could be taken to accompany new burials?
Alternatively, some of the curated remains studied by Brück and Booth could have been defleshed soon after death to prevent decomposition; none of the bones examined during their research showed cut marks indicative of this method, but this would be dependent on their preservation and the dexterity of the person who processed the remains, the team suggests. Finally, it is possible that bodies were exposed for excarnation, decomposing above ground so that parts could be removed more easily. Tell-tale signs such as traces of weathering or animal gnawing can be ambiguous, however, and might be affected by whether the body was protected by any kind of shelter.
In order to try to identify the rites performed on these remains, the researchers have examined the condition of the bones in detail, looking for evidence of bacterial bio-erosion of their internal microstructures – natural processes related to soft-tissue decomposition. Where high levels of bio-erosion are present, this suggests that a body was initially buried intact, and was allowed to decay before parts were exhumed at a later date. By contrast, low levels of bio-erosion point to decomposition being arrested before burial – whether through defleshing, mummification, or excarnation. (Burial in an anoxic or waterlogged environment can also prevent decomposition, but there was no evidence that this applied to the examined remains.)
Seventeen samples of Bronze Age human remains underwent histological analysis during the study, using nondestructive micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) to create a detailed image of their internal structures. The results were intriguingly mixed. Six samples showed high levels of bioerosion, but 11 preserved little or no sign of bacterial attack, and there was no clear temporal patterning between the two groups – it appears that both intact burial and immediate post-mortem processing were practised throughout the Bronze Age in Britain. Moreover, there was no apparent relationship between the remains that had yielded radiocarbon dates indicating curation, and their level of bioerosion. It seems that there was no obvious link between the funerary practices applied to a body after death, and whether or not their remains were retained for any length of time – rather, these seem to have been separate processes.
These findings enhance an already remarkable picture of diversity across Bronze Age funerary practices. As Brück and Booth conclude: ‘It seems that most people were given specific funerary treatment that was deemed appropriate, and that the decision to retain, retrieve, and curate bones was made at a later stage.’
T Booth and J Brück (2020) ‘Death is not the end: radiocarbon and histo-taphonomic evidence for the curation and excarnation of human remains in Bronze Age Britain’, Antiquity 1(18), https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.152.
For more on the Wilsford femur, see www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/?artwork=musicalinstrument-made-from-human-tibia.