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Chopping and Changing

Wherever you look in history, you’ll find that human beings have always treated the dead with respect and honour. That’s something that never changes. What changes considerably is the way that humans pay respect to their dead. And what one group does may horrify another. The Hindus think the dead must be cremated. The Zoroastrians and Tibetan Buddhists think that the dead should be eaten by vultures. Many Christians think that burial in the earth is best.

And what about the Stone Age people who lived about six thousand years ago on the Orkneys, the group of islands just off the north-east tip of Scotland? What they did to their dead seems horrifying to modern minds: they cut them up and scraped the flesh from their bones before placing them in communal graves. At least that’s the conclusion of a new study carried out by the archaeologist Dr Rebecca Crozier, who has been studying bones from cairns, or ancient stone tombs, on the islands of Orkney and Sanday.

There were no complete skeletons in the tombs and archaeologists had previously thought that bodies were buried elsewhere until the flesh rotted away, after which some bones were removed and taken away to be placed in a communal grave. But Dr Crozier studied the bones in more detail and discovered the marks of stone tools, suggesting that the flesh had been cut away before decomposition had taken place. She also proved that bones previously thought to be missing were in fact present in fragments, suggesting that they had been hacked apart as part of a grisly burial ritual.

At least, the ritual seems grisly to us, but it must have been a sacred act to the ancient Orcadians (as those who live on Orkney are called). The people of the Stone Age were far more familiar with death and dead bodies than we are today, living in a world where only hard work and careful planning enabled tribes to live through the dangers of the year. They didn’t have time or energy for trivial things, so the hard and unpleasant work of cutting up dead bodies must have had a serious purpose. So why did they cut up the dead like that and place the bones in communal graves? Six thousand years later, we can only guess at their motives, but archaeologists suggest that they may have thought of the dead as a group, not as individuals. By mingling the bones of many people in a single grave, they may thought they were helping the spirits of the dead to become one with each other or with some greater spirit of nature.

But if the dead are a group, it’s difficult when individual bodies decay at different rates, depending on their size and shape, the manner of their death, the season of the year, the place in which they are buried, and so on. This may have been why the ancient Orcadians treated the dead in what seems to us such a violent way. By cutting the flesh from the bones, then hacking the bones apart and even into fragments, they were refusing to allow chance and individuality to decide the fate of a departed loved one. Instead, the bones would be freed from the messy and random processes of decay and could join many other bones in an ancestral tomb.

That isn’t the way we would want to treat our own dead or be treated ourselves, but we can recognize our kinship with the ancient Orcadians. They thought that death was important and that a dead body has a special value, demanding rituals of burial and remembrance. Indeed, the tombs they built on Orkney were so strongly and carefully constructed that they would survive for six thousand years, carrying the evidence of their rituals and beliefs into the twenty-first century. So many things have changed since then, but human beings in modern Britain still mourn their dead and still treat them with respect and honour just as the ancient Orcadians did in the Stone Age.