Macabre musical instrument

Mouthpiece to a mysterious past!

From: Wiltshire Museum

This unique Bronze Age artefact was buried in a man’s grave at Normanton Down, close to Stonehenge.

It is the mouthpiece of a musical instrument made from a human femur bone. It has been carefully carved and polished, suggesting it was valuable and highly prized.

A closer look

New scientific research has dated it to about 1,700BC, which means that the owner of the instrument and the person who the bone came from were alive at much the same time. We don’t know what its significance was to the person it was buried with, nor how long it was in use.

There was a finger hole at the damaged end, but this is no longer visible. There is also ancient damage, indicating that it was actually used, not just a burial piece.

The excavation

The bone was found in a male burial within a bell barrow with the reference number Wilsford G58. It was excavated by William Cunnington in the early 19th century. The other grave goods found inside the barrow include a stone battle-axe, bronze flanged axe, a unique ceremonial pronged object, a bone plate, an antler handle, a tusk and a grooved stone. 

Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating normally requires a 0.5-1g bone sample. However, this musical instrument is a unique artefact, so rather than cutting a piece of bone directly from one of the edges, the bone was drilled from inside the cavity to obtain the sample. This approach minimised damage to the instrument. 

Radiocarbon dating in  June 2017 gave two calibrated dates for the instrument:

  • 1745-1617 cal BC (95% confidence)
  • 1731-1636 cal BC (68% confidence).

* The term cal BC means the number of years ‘before Christ’.

The musical instrument made out of human bone, laid out alongside a measure.
Musical instrument made from human femur bone

Further research

Summary from The Power of Relics: Curating Human Bone in the British Bronze Age by Dr Joanna Bruck and Dr Thomas Booth, University of Bristol, 2017:


“The project investigated evidence for the curation of ‘relics’ - pieces of human bone that were deliberately retained over long periods of time in the British Bronze Age. It is widely recognised that Bronze Age artefacts such as jet beads and ceramic vessels were kept and circulated as heirlooms over many generations. Evidence such as the occasional discovery of worked fragments of human bone suggests that human remains were treated in similar ways.


This project employed a programme of radiocarbon dating to consider whether fragments of human bone from particular settlements and burials are demonstrably earlier than their final depositional contexts. The possible social implications of these practices were explored, casting light on how memory, materiality and the body were drawn into the definition of social and political identities.


The Wilsford G58 musical instrument represents direct and unambiguous evidence for the curation, retention and transformation of human remains by Bronze Age Britons. It looks as though the instrument was not in use for a great duration of time and came from a person that could have lived within living memory of the individual that was buried with it. This may also suggests that the instrument was most likely made specifically for the individual it accompanied. It doesn't seem to be some long-lived ancestral relic. This throws up some interesting questions about why people were only keeping these things over relatively short periods, possibly reflecting the individual passing out of memory.”

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