Neolithic long barrows may once have been witness to ghoulish burial rituals involving the repeated handling of pieces of decaying corpses.
Analysis of bones recovered from two burial mounds in Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire by postgraduate student Mary Baxter at Cambridge University has revealed evidence of complex treatment of the dead that would turn the stomach of modern man.
"Neolithic communities did not simply dispose of their dead; they handled them repeatedly and shifted them about," Ms Baxter said.
"The body parts that were jumbled about and reused seem to have been part-decayed; rotting but still hanging together."
The usual way of disposing of the dead in the past 3,000 years in Europe has been to either cremate or bury in a single grave.
However, between 6,500 and 4,000 years ago, the evidence suggests a body was disposed of in one place and then later moved to another for its final burial.
Ms Baxter's work, described in the
latest issue of British Archaeology, suggests the accepted idea that bodies
were laid out in the open to lose their
flesh before being interred in a communal burial mound may be wrong.
She found that in the Cambridgeshire tomb, while many small hand and foot bones - the first to drop off as the body decays - were present among the excavated remains, several larger bones appear to have been removed.
There were also cut marks that suggested at least one bone had been defleshed and patterns of semi-
articulation that suggested body parts had been removed in a state of semi-decay when still linked up, with ligaments, tendons and even muscles intact.
At the Oxfordshire tomb, there were far fewer small bones than there should have been, suggesting the bodies had partly decomposed at another location before being transferred to the burial mound.
However, the positions of some of the large bones suggested they had been arranged while still joined together.
Why our Neolithic ancestors chose to handle the dead in this macabre fashion is uncertain, but may have been linked to spreading the spiritual power of a dead person between several locations with which they were associated.
"The taboos surrounding death are so deep-seated that any methods of disposal that differ from the norm are viewed by many today with a peculiar mixture of horror and fascination," Ms Baxter said.