Bronze Age Britons Turned Bones of Dead Relatives into Musical Instruments & Ornaments

Image via the Wilt­shire Muse­um

The bur­ial rites of ancient and exot­ic peo­ples can seem out­landish to us, but there’s noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly nor­mal about the funer­al tra­di­tions in the Unit­ed States and the UK, where corpses are sent off to pro­fes­sion­al under­tak­ers and made to look alive before they’re sealed in box­es and buried or turned into piles of ash.

Andrea Den­Hoed at The New York­er refers to the prac­tice of Tibetan Bud­dhist sky buri­als, in which “bod­ies are rit­u­al­ly dis­sect­ed and left in the open to be con­sumed by vul­tures” and of the Tora­jans of Indone­sia, who “have a rit­u­al called Ma’Nene, in which bod­ies are dis­in­terred, dressed in new clothes, and car­ried in a parade around the vil­lage.” These rites seem almost to mock our west­ern fears of death.

Inno­va­tions on the funer­al dis­place us fur­ther from the body. Den­Hoed writes, in 2016, of the then-rel­a­tive­ly rare expe­ri­ence of attend­ing a funer­al over Skype, now com­mon­place by virtue of bleak neces­si­ty. It’s hard to say if high-tech mourn­ing rit­u­als like turn­ing human remains into playable vinyl records brings us clos­er to accept­ing dead bod­ies, but they cer­tain­ly bring us clos­er to an ances­tral pre­his­toric past when at least some Bronze Age Britons turned the bones of their dead into musi­cal instru­ments.

Is it any more macabre than turn­ing rel­a­tives into dia­monds? Who’s to say. The researchers who made this dis­cov­ery, Dr. Thomas Booth and Joan­na Brück, pub­lished their find­ings in the jour­nal Antiq­ui­ty under the tongue-in-cheek title “Death is not the end: radio­car­bon and his­to-tapho­nom­ic evi­dence for the cura­tion and excar­na­tion of human remains in Bronze Age Briton.”

What’s that now? Through radio­car­bon-dat­ing, the researchers, in oth­er words, were able to deter­mine that ancient peo­ple who lived between 2500–600 BC “were keep­ing and curat­ing body parts, bones and cre­mat­ed remains” of peo­ple they knew well, some­times exhum­ing and rit­u­al­ly re-bury­ing the remains in their homes, or just keep­ing them around for a cou­ple gen­er­a­tions.

“It’s indica­tive of a broad­er mind­set where the line between the liv­ing and the dead was more blurred than it is today,” Booth tells The Guardian. “There wasn’t a mind­set that human remains go in the ground and you for­get about them. They were always present among the liv­ing.” This is hard­ly strange. The incred­i­ble amount of loss peo­ple will feel after COVID-19 will like­ly bring a pro­lif­er­a­tion of such rit­u­als.

The find mak­ing head­lines is a human thigh bone “that had been carved into a whis­tle” Josh Davis writes at the British Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um, and buried with anoth­er adult male. “When dat­ed, it revealed that the thigh bone came from a per­son who prob­a­bly lived around the same date as the man that it was buried with, mean­ing it is like­ly that it was some­one that they knew in life, or were fair­ly close to.”

There doesn’t seem to be any sug­ges­tion that this was a com­mon or wide­spread prac­tice, but it’s not that dis­sim­i­lar to wear­ing the remains of the dead as jew­el­ry. “The Romans did it,” notes Glenn McDon­ald at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, “The Per­sians did it. The Maya did it.” And the Vic­to­ri­ans, also, wore the remains of their dead, 4,000 years after their ancient ances­tors. “The tech­nolo­gies change,” says McDon­ald, “but the basic human expe­ri­ence” of death, loss, and mourn­ing remains the same.

The thigh bone whis­tle is on dis­play at the Wilt­shire Muse­um in the UK.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Hear a 9,000 Year Old Flute—the World’s Old­est Playable Instrument—Get Played Again

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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