People who lived in the Bronze Age kept dead relatives’ body parts as relics and turned them into items such as musical instruments, home decorations and keepsakes.
The findings suggest our ancestors did not view human remains with the sense of “horror or disgust” we do today, said academics, who added that their actions showed a way of honouring and remembering the deceased.
Radiocarbon dating and CT scanning was used to examine bones from 4,500 years ago in the study, conducted at the University of Bristol.
It revealed a tradition of retaining and curating human remains as relics over several generations.
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.
Now displayed in the Wiltshire Museum, the carefully carved and polished artefact was found with other objects including stone and bronze axes, a bone plate and a tusk.
Professor Joanna Bruck, the principal investigator for the study, said: “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.
“This suggests that Bronze Age people did not view human remains with the sense of horror or disgust that we might feel today.”
Prof Buck and Dr Thomas Booth explained that human remains were seen as powerful objects in modern secular societies, and this was also true of the Bronze Age.
Dr Booth said people of the time curated the remains of people who had played a significant role in their life or communities so they “had a relic to remember and perhaps tell stories about them”.
To understand how the body was treated while it was decomposing, a micro-CT scanner at the Natural History Museum was used for the study.
“Some had been cremated before being split up, some bones were exhumed after burial, and some had been de-fleshed by being left to decompose on the ground,” Dr Booth said.
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The results suggested there was no exact protocol for the treatment of bodies whose remains were destined to be curated, he added.
Evidence already exists that Bronze Age people in Britain practised a number of funerary rites such as primary burial, excarnation, cremation and mummification.
But the new research reveals the remains of the dead were also regularly kept and circulated among the living.
“This study really highlights the strangeness and perhaps the unknowable nature of the distant past from a present-day perspective,” Dr Booth said.
The paper – Radiocarbon and histo-taphonomic evidence for the curation and excarnation of human remains in Bronze Age Britain – is published in the journal Antiquity.
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