ChapterPDF Available

'Hunnic' modified skulls: Physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations


Abstract and Figures

The distribution of modified skulls from the Black Sea to southern France has long been linked to the Huns. Historically, the advance of the Huns into Roman territory in the fourth and fifth centuries has been seen as the catalyst for the migrations of other barbarian tribes which ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The archaeological evidence associated with these skulls provides a more varied picture of migrations and the effects they had on both the migrating and the receiving populations. First, the migration of nomadic peoples into the Roman provinces in the Carpathian basin was a gradual process that profoundly changed material expressions of identity there and led to the development of a ‘hybrid’ culture. Second, the distribution of women with modified skulls west of the Carpathian basin indicates directed movements of individuals, possibly in the context of an exogamous social structure. In a migration context, modified skulls are a clear physical reminder that a person is ‘foreign’ or has a history of migration, and the physical traits of the body in themselves become a source of identity. Individuals with modified skulls, and the manner in which they were buried, thus provide a case study for examining the relationship between physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Mortuary Practices
and Social Identities
in the Middle Ages
Essays in Burial Archaeology
in Honour of Heinrich Härke
Edited by
Duncan Sayer and Howard Williams
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra3 3 05/06/2009 16:57:29
Professor Grenville Astill Department of Archaeology, Whiteknights,
Box , Reading RG AB, UK,
Professor Richard Bradley Department of Archaeolog y, Whitekn ights,
Box , Reading RG AB, UK,
Dr Stefan Burmeister Museum und Park Kalkriese, Venner Straße ,
, Bramsche, Germany,
Professor Rober t Chapman Department of Archaeology, Wh iteknig hts,
Box , Reading RG AB, UK,
Professor Roberta Gi lchrist D e p a r t m e n t o f A r c h a e o l o g y , W h i t e k n i g h t s ,
Box , Reading RG AB, UK,
Dr Susanne Hakenbeck Junior Research Fellow, Newnham College,
University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB DF, UK and Affiliated
Researcher, McDonald I nstitute for Archaeologic al Research, University
of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB ER, UK, seh@
Dr Catherine Hills University Senior Lecturer, Department of
Archaeology, University of Cambridge, CB DZ, UK, ch@cam.
Dr Karen Høilund Nielsen Senior Research Associate, Byagervej ,
.mf., DK– Beder, Denmark,,,
Dr David Petts Lecturer in Archaeology, Department of Archaeology,
University of Durham, South Road, Durham DH LE, d.a.petts@
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra7 7 05/06/2009 16:57:29
viii Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
Dr Duncan Sayer Part-time Lecturer at the Centre for Death and
Society. Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath,
Bath BA AY,
Dr Eva S. Thäte Independent Researcher, Riensberger Str.  E, ,
Bremen, Germany
Dr Howard Williams Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Department
of History and Archaeology, University of Chester, Parkgate Road,
Chester CH BJ,
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra8 8 05/06/2009 16:57:29
Chapter 5
‘Hunnic’ modied skulls: physical
appearance, identity and the
transformative nature
of migrations
Susanne Hakenbeck
The distribution of modified skulls from the Black Sea to southern
France has long been linked to the Huns. Historically, the advance of
the Huns into Roman territory in the fourth and fifth centuries has been
seen as the catalyst for the migrations of other barbarian tribes which
ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The
archaeological evidence associated with these skulls provides a more varied
picture of migrations and the effects they had on both the migrating and
the receiving populations. First, the migration of nomadic peoples into
the Roman provinces in the Carpathian basin was a gradual process that
profoundly changed material expressions of identity there and led to the
development of a ‘hybrid’ culture. Second, the distribution of women with
modified skulls west of the Carpathian basin indicates directed movements
of individuals, possibly in the context of an exogamous social structure.
In a migration context, modified skulls are a clear physical reminder that
a person is ‘foreign’ or has a history of migration, and the physical traits
of the body in themselves become a source of identity. Individuals with
modified skulls, and the manner in which they were buried, thus provide
a case study for examining the relationship between physical appearance,
identity and the transformative nature of migrations.
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra64 64 05/06/2009 16:57:37
In archaeology an unresolved conflict has been observed between the
notion of ethnic identity as a cultural construct, which is based on
self-identification with a group, and the physical characteristics of
individuals or larger populations (Härke a: f.). Härke (: )
has drawn attention to the opposing and sometimes extreme responses
by British and German scholars to his attempts to identify immigrants
from the European continent in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries by using
certain skeletal markers, such as non-metric traits and calculations of
body size (Härke a: ff.; a: –). These reactions appear to
be rooted in the different intellectual traditions of British and German-
speaking archaeology. In German-speaking archaeology, ethnicity and
biological group affiliation are frequently considered to be the same
thing (Härke : ). Much of German-speaking archaeology is
situated within the ‘ethnic paradigm’ (Härke : , b: ;
Brather : ), according to which ethnicity is an essentially
unproblematic social category that can be identified by certain elements
of material culture or by morphological characteristics of the skeleton.
Changes in material culture are therefore easily attributed to the
migrations of ethnic groups. British archaeologists, on the other hand,
have, in the past three decades, adopted an anti-migrationist position
that favours the idea of autochthonous developments (Härke :
f.). In parallel, ethnicity came to be seen as an identity as an
internal sense of belonging – and the possibility of accessing it through
material culture was thus considered limited (Härke a: ). Thus,
one perspective emphasises the internal nature of ethnicity, the other
its external characteristics; neither acknowledges that there might be
a relationship between the two. The practice of skull modification
bridges this gap by making the physical traits of the body themselves
a source of identity (Härke a: ).
Individuals with artificially modified skulls (Fig. .) occur in large
numbers in late Roman and early medieval cemeteries in the Carpathian
basin and as isolated cases in central and western Europe as far as
southern France (Fig. .). These skulls have long been interpreted as
primary evidence for the Hunnic migrations into Europe. The practice
of skull modification is thought to have originated in the central
Eurasian steppes in the first century   and to have been brought
to central Europe with the Huns and other nomadic peoples (see
Werner ; Kiszely ; Anke a, b for overviews). Isolated
cases of modified skulls in western Europe have been explained as an
effect of the sudden growth of the Hunnic power sphere which led
to the temporary adoption of the practice (e.g. Werner : , ;
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra65 65 05/06/2009 16:57:37
66 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
Schmidt : ; Anke a: ; Huck : ). A more critical
investigation reveals a more complex picture, where the association of
modified skulls with nomadic material culture is not always clear-cut,
where skulls are often found in late Roman contexts and where skull
modification west of the Carpathian basin is exclusively limited to
adult women.
Artificial cranial modification is achieved through binding of the
head, using boards, straps, cords or pads, during early childhood
when the bones of the skull are still soft (Blom : ). After the
age of about three to five years, the bones of the skull have fused
sufficiently to make the cranial modification a permanent feature of
a person’s appearance. It was a highly regulated practice and may
Fig. .: A
modified skull
from the cemetery
of Altenerding,
grave 
(Reproduced with
permission from
Helmuth :
plate ).
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra66 66 05/06/2009 16:57:37
have been deeply tied up in notions of correct childcare, health and
beauty. Dingwall (: ), for example, describes skull modification in
Baluchistan in the early twentieth century as a complex process during
which specific rules had to be observed and which required the use of
special cloths and bands that were reserved for this purpose. Cranial
modification suggests a view of the body as malleable and as needing
to be improved from its natural state (Lorentz : ; Torres-Rouff
and Yablonsky : ). The body of an individual is quite literally
shaped by society; it becomes a symbol of both the personal and the
social.1 Unlike dress, a modified skull, like other aspects of physical
appearance cannot be changed. It becomes part of a persons identity,
of who they are and how they are perceived. Recent ethnographic and
archaeological examinations of bodily transformations, such as cranial
and dental modification, tattooing and scarification (e.g. Torres-Rouff
; Schildkrout ; Blom ; Torres-Rouff and Yablonsky ;
Geller ), have drawn attention to the importance of these practices
for generating and maintaining social identities, specifically ethnic or
group identities. Torres-Rouff and Yablonsky (: ) point out that
skull modification in particular creates physical differences in a society
where biological differences do not necessarily exist.
Early work on skull modification in Europe was undertaken by
anthropologists and anatomists who were primarily interested in the
skulls’ racial characteristics (see Schliz ; Dingwall ). Early
medieval skull modification was first considered in its archaeological
context by Werner () in a comprehensive study of the archaeological
evidence for a nomadic lifestyle during the time of Attila (the first half
of the fifth century) in eastern and central Europe. In addition to
mapping known examples of skull modification, Werner focused on
material culture which he understood to be specific to the lifestyle
of the Eurasian nomads, such as horse equipment and weaponry
(especially the composite bow), as well as mirrors, diadems, bronze
cauldrons and the so-called magical sword pendants. Some of these
– notably the mirrors – matched the distribution of modified skulls
very closely, while other artefact types, such as long swords or diadems,
had a more varied distribution. Werner (: ) identified the origin
of the practice among the Mongolian Kenkol group from the Tian Shan
1 See Shilling () and Synnott () for more in-depth examinations of
the ‘social body’; see Meskell (), Joyce () and Sofaer () for
archaeological approaches.
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra67 67 05/06/2009 16:57:37
68 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
and Pamir mountains, dating from the first century  . He believed
it then to have been transmitted to the Sarmatians and Alans in the
third and fourth centuries  and to have spread into central Europe
with the Hunnic expansion in the early fifth century. According to
Werner, skull modification continued into the sixth century among
the Goths on the Crimean peninsula, the Gepids along the river Tisza
in Hungary, the Langobards in Moravia, and among the Thuringians
and Burgundians (Werner : ).
Operating within a strict historical framework, Werner assumed that
all apparently nomadic material culture in the Carpathian basin dating
from the first half of the fifth century   was associated with the
Huns. However, in line with contemporary scholarship (e.g. Jettmar
), he acknowledged that the archaeological study of the Huns posed
particular problems, since they were to be considered as an ethnically
diverse political confederation, rather than a homogenous group
(Werner : ). He therefore focused on the evidence for a nomadic
lifestyle and society more generally, rather than aiming to identify
a distinct Hunnic material culture. Werner’s Hunnic hypothesis has
been widely upheld by more recent scholarship (e.g. Kiszely ;
Anke a; b). One exception is Crubézy (), who undertook a
study of skull modification in France. Crubézy criticized Werner’s
exclusive attribution of skull modification in western Europe to Hunnic
influences, his over-reliance on historical events, and his failure to take
modified skulls from before the fifth century into account (Crubézy
: f.). These are important criticisms; unfortunately, Crubézy
does not propose an alternative explanation. While he emphasizes
the heterogeneity of the practice, its continuity over time and the
possibility of independent development, he nevertheless ultimately
returns to the theory that skull modification was initially a foreign
practice: ‘We believe that discoveries [of modified skulls] dating from
the time of the great invasions … might eventually be related to
the passage or settlement of Germanic tribes’ (Crubézy : ).
Confusingly, he also notes that ‘our ideas on the great migrations
have changed over time, and it is now thought that individuals coming
from Asia only rarely reached Europe directly. It seems inappropriate
nowadays to consider … the deformed specimens found in the Rhone
group or in Germany as belonging to foreign warriors or prisoners’
(Crubézy : ).
These various approaches to skull modification in early medieval
Europe track the changing attitudes to migration and ethnicity in
archaeology over the course of the past century, beginning with an
e m p h a s i s o n r a c e a n d f o l l o w e d b y t h e a l m o s t e x c l u s i v e r e l i a n c e o n m a t e r i a l
culture as an ethnic signifier and finally by a rejection of migration
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra68 68 05/06/2009 16:57:37
hypotheses in favour of autochthonous development (see Chapman
and Hamerow ; Härke ; Härke ). Recent years have
seen a renewed interest in the (bio)anthropological and morphological
characteristics of skull modification (e.g. Wiltschke-Schrotta /;
Teschler-Nicola and Mitteröcker ), though generally without a
focus on its wider archaeological context. None of these studies entirely
do justice to what is clearly a complex phenomenon, covering a large
geographical area and time span. There are several reasons for this: on
a methodological level, large-scale syntheses are rarely integrated with
a detailed analysis of the archaeological context, since, in many cases,
secure dates or information about the associated burial practices are
simply not available. Further, archaeological approaches to migrations
continue to be a matter of contention, in spite of a recently renewed
interest in the subject (e.g. Burmeister ; Vander Linden ),
partly brought about by developments in archaeological science such as
stable isotope analysis and genetics (e.g. Schweissing and Grupe ;
Price et al. ; Thomas et al. ). On the other hand, those scholars
who do study migrations frequently focus on those that are known
from historical sources, and they fit the archaeological evidence – often
simplistically – into a pre-existing conceptual framework. However, if
we aim to move on from treating modified skulls simply as dots on a
map that indicate the Hunnic advance, and towards an understanding
of the social dimensions of this practice, then we need to address the
complex relationship between the migration of people, the transmission
of material culture and the effects of these factors on identity.
The eastern group: from the Black Sea to the Carpathian basin
The distribution of modified skulls in Europe falls into two distinct
geographical groups, an eastern and a western one, which are roughly
divided by a line running north–south to the east of the Alps and the
Czech massif (Fig. .). In the eastern group a great number of cemeteries
contain individuals with modified skulls and the distribution of males
and females is roughly equal. The Romanian cemeteries are among the
oldest in this group. The group of four burials in Pogorˇsti, with one
modified skull, and the large cemetery of Tîrg˛sor, with more than 
graves, from which six skeletons had modified skulls, date from the
second and third centuries   (Anke b: , ). These cemeteries
have been associated with the Sarmatians, according to typological and
historical interpretations, and they are thus considered to pre-date the
Hunnic invasions (Kiszely : ). The cemetery of Dunaújváros
(Roman Intercisa) in Hungary contained more than , inhumations.
Its nine modified skulls date from the second and third centuries 
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra69 69 05/06/2009 16:57:37
70 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
(Kiszely : ). Teijral (: ) has suggested that such incidences
of skull modification in late Roman cemeteries in Pannonia may also
have been connected with late-Sarmatian influences. However, even in
the following, post-Sarmatian, centuries modified skulls are frequently
associated with late Roman sites (see Anke a: ff.), pointing to
complex and ongoing interactions between individuals with Roman
and barbarian2 associations at these sites. The eight cases from the
fourth or fifth centuries at the Roman fort of Valcum on Lake Balatón,
modern-day Keszthely-Fenékpuszta, Hungary (Müller : ; Anke
b: ), are a good example of this.
South of Dunaújváros, the fifth-century cemetery of Mõsz has been
interpreted as a family cemetery (Salamon and Lengyel ). Of 
individuals,  had modified skulls. Of these, six were female and five
male (based on their grave goods); five were children. In this cemetery,
the Roman practice of burying in brick-lined graves continued, with
three of the four brick graves containing individuals with deformed
skulls. The grave goods reflect a variety of influences, with some
objects, such as iron brooches and earrings with polyhedric pendants,
representing the Roman period in Pannonia, and others that have been
identified with the Huns (Salamon and Lengyel : ). The spatial
lay-out of the cemetery indicates that three generations were buried
here. The authors think that an adult man introduced the practice
of skull modification to the community in the second generation,
while the other individuals with modified skulls belonged to the third
generation (Salamon and Lengyel : ).
The majority of modified skulls from the area around Vienna,
and from Lower Austria and Moravia, date from the first half or the
middle of the fifth century. In this cluster, individuals with modified
skulls on average make up between  and % of all inhumations.
In the mid-fifth-century cemetery of Gaweinstal in Lower Austria
2 Naming the peoples of late antiquity is highly problematic, and no satisfactory
and uncontroversial naming convention has yet been found. While ‘barbarian’
is a term that was employed by the writers of antiquity to describe peoples that
were not Roman and was not used by the barbarians themselves, I consider it
preferable to the alternative – ‘Germanic’ – which carries with it a different set
of problematic meanings. In its artificiality, ‘barbarian’ conveys some sense of
the ‘other’ that is useful in the context of studying identities. I have adopted
the term ‘barbarian’ as a collective label for non-Roman material culture
and for the identity of those people that were outside the Roman empire or
operated along its frontiers. Some elements of this ‘barbarian’ material culture
are more closely associated with a nomadic lifestyle (as listed by Werner
() and Anke ()), while others have been classified typologically as
‘Germanic’ or ‘east Germanic’ (e.g. ‘Gothic’ brooches).
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra70 70 05/06/2009 16:57:38
five individuals out of a total of nine inhumations exhibited modified
skulls (Winkler and Wicke ). Three of these were female, one male,
and one was a child. Grave goods were limited to belt buckles and
fragments of knives and strike-a-lights. The cemetery of Grafenwörth
(Lippert), also in Lower Austria, dates from the same period.
Here two adult skeletons, one male and one female, out of a total of
, had modified skulls. The burial practice in Grafenwörth combines
a variety of influences: a sword appears to be of a western European
type, the decoration on the pottery and a bone comb point towards
the Black Sea, whereas wheel-thrown technology and burial in stone-
lined graves are late Roman (Lippert : ). In the later fifth and
sixth centuries, the practice of skull modification radiated out from
the earlier centres in Hungary and Lower Austria/Moravia, the cluster
of modified skulls along the river Tisza dating from this slightly later
period. The multi-period cemetery of Kiszombor B in Hungary, with
 modified skulls out of a total of , contained some of the latest
examples in this area, such as a juvenile/young adult male from grave
 dating from the second half of the sixth to the early seventh century
(Anke a: , b: ).
Romans, nomads and other barbarians
Werner (: ) interpreted the modified skulls from eastern Europe
and the Carpathian basin as evidence that the practice of skull
modification had spread from east to west, as a consequence of the
Hunnic migrations into central Europe. However, subsequent research
has shown that skull modification was a far more complex phenomenon
that cannot simply be reduced to Hunnic influences. First, in Romania
and at some sites in Hungary, skull modification pre-dates the historical
arrival of the Huns. Further, the fifth-century heartlands of skull
modification, Transdanubia and Lower Austria, correspond with the
Roman province of Pannonia, and here many of the cemeteries with
large numbers of modified skulls are associated with Roman forts and
settlements. Both the practice of burial in stone- or brick-lined graves
and the use of late Roman material culture as grave goods indicate
that a new population was not simply making use of the late-antique
infrastructure (as was suggested by Werner : ), but that there was
close social and cultural integration. On the other hand, the material
culture assemblage that Werner interpreted as nomadic is only rarely
directly associated with individuals with modified skulls. Instead, the
burial practice exhibits a variety of influences. Not only were grave
good types of varied provenance used together, but the production and
decorative styles of artefacts were also highly mixed.
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra71 71 05/06/2009 16:57:38
72 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
The ways in which the practice of skull modification was transmitted
across Europe are thus by no means clear. There is little indication
that the practice came to the Carpathian basin in the wake of one
defined migration event. The skulls provide evidence for migration
only by proxy: the movement of the practice indicates a movement
of people, but the extent to which specific individuals were mobile
is difficult to gauge. The picture is complicated further by various
elements of material culture that were also transmitted from eastern
Europe and beyond, such as new types of weaponry and jewellery,
mirrors, and new styles of pottery decoration. They indicate changes in
social practices and lifestyles that were taken up in the receiving areas,
particularly within the former Roman provinces, where a ‘hybrid’
society developed (Friesinger ; Tejral : ff.). That a distinct
‘frontier culture’ encouraged the development of regional identities has
also been noted elsewhere (e.g. Goffart ; Swift ; Hakenbeck
In the C arpath ian basin , this wa s compounded by complex inte ractions
between nomadic and settled lifestyles (Pohl : f.; Anke :
). Environmentally, the Carpathian basin is at the periphery of the
Eurasian steppes, and it lacked the conditions to support full nomadic
pastoralism as it was practised in central Asia. It did, however, provide
access to the portable wealth and luxury items that could be obtained
in the Roman provinces through raids, trade and treaties, and offered
the possibility of arable farming along the Danube (Pohl : ). On
the other hand, raiding and warfare on horseback were an attractive
choice even for settled populations, as is indicated by the ready take-
up of certain types of weaponry and horse equipment (Bierbrauer
: ff.). This led to the creation of a new identity that drew on
its nomadic origins, as well as the existing late Roman and barbarian
identities. The spread of the practice of skull modification was one
aspect of such a heterogeneous development.
The western group: from the Alps to the Pyrenees
In the second half of the fifth century  , modified skulls first appeared
west of the cemeteries in Lower Austria and Moravia (Fig. .). They
cluster in Bavaria, Bohemia, central Germany, the Rhine valley, around
Lac Léman and in the valley of the Garonne in southern France. There
is also a cluster in Slovenia and some isolated cases in Italy. Compared
with the eastern group, several differences are immediately apparent:
the skulls are distributed over a large area, they are fewer in number
and, most importantly, % ( of  sexed skeletons) are female. As
far as they can be dated, most cases fall between the second half of the
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra72 72 05/06/2009 16:57:38
fifth and the first half of the sixth centuries (Werner ; Kiszely ;
Schröter : ; Geisler ; Hakenbeck : ). The pattern
in southern France seems to have been slightly different, since there is
some evidence that the practice of skull modification may have begun
in the Gallo-Roman period and continued into the eighth and ninth
centuries (Crubézy : ).
None of the individuals from this western group has been identified
as a child or even a juvenile, apart from one case in Bohemia (Anke
b: ). In fact, the proportion of older individuals is extremely high,
both compared to the eastern group and to a typical early medieval
cemetery population (Fig. .). Overall, more than% ( of
aged skeletons) belonged to adult or older individuals. In Bavaria and
central Germany more than half of the individuals with modified skulls
were classed as maturus or senilis, and the pattern within the smaller
clusters is very similar. Since children would otherwise be included in
the demographics, such an age distribution strongly suggests that skull
modification was not an indigenous practice. Furthermore, with the
exception of Bavaria, only one or two individuals with modified skulls
have been found in each of the cemeteries and the cemeteries often lie
far apart. Lorentz (: ) has pointed out that skull modification
is a practice that requires considerable knowledge, commitment and
time investment by the mother or carers of an infant. Such an extended
package of knowledge, practice and belief cannot have been easily
Fig. .: Location
of modified skulls
across Europe.
. Pogoºti,
. Tîrgºor, .
Dunaújváros, .
Valcum (Kesthely-
. Mõsz, .
Gaweinstal, .
. Kiszombor,
. Altenerding,
. Straubing-
. O ßman stedt.
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra73 73 05/06/2009 16:57:39
74 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
communicated between isolated individuals. Both the demographics
and the relatively infrequent occurrence of the parctice therefore
indicate that these individuals were not indigenous to the places where
they were buried. Instead, we can assume that they travelled to these
areas, possibly from Austria or Moravia or from even further to the east
where – as we have seen – a much larger proportion of the population
in the fifth and sixth centuries had modified skulls. The location of
modified skulls predominantly along the main river valleys provides
a clue as to the route these migrations might have taken. The Danube
and Rhine were not only frontiers but important axes of commerce
and communication and the routes connecting the Danube, Rhine, and
Rhône were of fundamental importance for linking the Mediterranean
with northern and eastern Europe (Werner : f.; Harris :
The women with modified skulls in this western group were buried
almost exclusively according to the local burial practice, wearing local
funerary dress. Only in exceptional cases was there evidence of eastern
or nomadic influences. In southern Germany they were buried with
elements of the assemblage typical there in the later fifth and early
sixth centuries: a variety of brooches, a bead necklace, belt buckle,
comb and knife. The five women in Altenerding (Fig. .) were buried
with grave goods that were entirely unremarkable in the context of
the cemetery and the region (Losert : ). Even the fact that
one grave contained a pair of ‘Thuringian’ brooches is representative
of the variety of brooch types that was in use at this site (Losert
; Hakenbeck ). In Straubing-Bajuwarenstrasse (Geisler ;
Fig. .:
Distributions of
age at death (in
percentages) among
individuals with
modified skulls
from different parts
of Europe and,
for comparison,
of a ‘normal’
early medieval
population from
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra74 74 05/06/2009 16:57:39
) eleven women had modified skulls. The bow brooches include
‘Frankish/Alamannic’ and ‘Ostrogothic’ types, as well as two bow
brooches with rectangular heads and rhomboid feet which are clearly
reminiscent of northern European, even ‘Anglo-Saxon’, types (Fig.
.). These are not entirely unusual so far south: similar brooches have
been found in Basel-Kleinhüningen, Switzerland, and in Schretzheim
in southern Germany (Koch : ff.). Such variability of brooch
types was in keeping with wider practices during this time.
However, in exceptional cases, even the grave goods suggest a non-
local origin for these women. The mid- to late-fifth century grave of
an adult woman in Oßmanstedt (Fig. .) is unique in the Thuringian
Fig. .: Grave
goods of
individuals with
deformed skulls
from Altenerding
and Straubing-
Bavaria (from
Sage : plates
, , , ,
reproduced with
permission; ©H.
Geisler, reproduced
with permission).
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra75 75 05/06/2009 16:57:39
76 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
area. It contained a gold and garnet eagle brooch on a gold chain, two
gold earrings with garnet inlay, a gold and silver buckle with a plate
with gold and garnet inlay, a gold finger ring, and a mirror fragment,
among other items (Anke b: ; Huck : ). Eagle brooches
have been found at sites in the Balkans and in Ostrogothic Italy, as
well as in Visigothic southern France and Spain (Martin : ). In
all these regions they were commonly worn peplos-style as a pair on
the shoulders.3 The way in which it was worn here, singly on a chain
at the pelvis, is unusual, but more in keeping with the local practice.
The high-quality gold and garnet work has been associated with
3 The peplos-style dress was typical for fifth-century Italy, eastern Europe as
far as the Crimea, and the Iberian peninsula. In England it was still used
in the sixth century and in Scandinavia it was worn until the end of the
Viking period. In southern and central Europe it has been associated with
the Goths (Bierbrauer : ; Koch : ff.). West of the Rhine it had
been abandoned by the end of the fourth century in favour of one or two bow
brooches worn lower down on the body (Böhme : ff.; Martin :
Fig. .: The skull
and eagle brooch
of the adult woman
from Oßmanstedt,
S. Stefan,
Landesamt für
und Archäologie,
Wei mar,
reproduced with
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra76 76 05/06/2009 16:57:40
nobility and was probably manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean
(Arrhenius ). The mirror, on the other hand, is a component of
nomadic-style material culture. Mirrors found in eastern Europe and
central Asia were frequently broken before their deposition (Werner
: –; Ankea: ). The fact that the mirror in this grave was
also broken suggests that there was a common understanding of the
significance of a broken mirror in burial practice in Oßmanstedt and
in eastern Europe. All aspects of the assemblage therefore point to an
origin in the Carpathian basin or northern Italy. It is difficult to assess
why this woman was buried in a manner that made reference to her
foreign origins when this was not the case with most other women with
modified skulls, although her greater burial wealth and possibly higher
status may provide an explanation. The purpose of her travels, her
marital status or the manner of her death are impossible to determine,
but these may have been factors that led to a non-local identity being
expressed in her burial.
Migrations and transformations
It is attested in historical sources that royal and noble women frequently
married far from their original home and travelled long distances to
be with their in-laws (Nelson : ff.). Guichard and Cuvillier
(: ) suggest that ‘the practices of exogamy and homogamy were
essential to [an ethnic] group’s political expansion and social cohesion’.
‘Mixed marriages’ – in other words, marriages outside of one’s original
ethnic group – played a particularly important part in this. They
established the cognatic ties (that is, the ties between a woman’s
husband and her family) which cemented political alliances. Thus
Sidonius Appolinaris wrote in later fifth-century Gaul: ‘The country
where our mother was born is still part of the fatherland’ (Guichard
and Cuvillier: ).
While little is known from historical sources about individuals from
the lower echelons of society, archaeological evidence supports the
notion of high levels of mobility among women, at least once during
their lives. This evidence is not limited to individuals with modified
skulls. A frequently cited example of individual mobility is the older
woman from the cemetery of Altenerding (grave ). She was buried
wearing a peplos-style dress and with grave goods that all point to
an origin in Scandinavia or the Baltic region (cf. Werner:f.;
Sage et al. : ; Losert : f., f.). The manner in which she
was buried is so homogeneously Scandinavian that migration seems
the only explanation. However, such clear-cut cases are rare and not
necessarily representative of wider practices. Usually, the evidence is
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra77 77 05/06/2009 16:57:40
78 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
more subtle. Measuring metric and non-metric traits in the skeletal
material from Altenerding, Helmuth (: , ) found that there
were statistically significant differences between the male and female
populations. He suggested that men and women could have originated
among different population groups. A similar pattern was noted by
Schweissing and Grupe () in a study of stable strontium isotopes
in the skeletal remains from a cemetery associated with a late Roman
fort in Neuburg, on the Danube in southern Germany and not far from
Straubing. They concluded that .% ( of ) of adult and older
women, compared with .% ( of ) of adult and older men, had
not grown up locally (Schweissing and Grupe : ).
Exogamy as an explanation for the distribution of modified skulls in
this western group is not entirely new, although it is usually employed
simply as a convenient label for an otherwise unexplained archaeological
pattern (e.g. Schmidt : ; Schröter : ). The implications of
exogamous social networks for our understanding of migrations and
mobility and of how they relate to peoples identities have remained
unexplored. First, the movement of these women clearly does not take
a path into the unknown, but follows a meaningful direction. We can
assume two-way connections between early medieval societies that were
sustained across long distances, providing the reasons for the journey
as well as the knowledge of the route and the destination (cf. Anthony
: ; Burmeister : ). Second, such mobility of individuals
appears to have had a limited effect in terms of the identity of the
receiving population and a fundamental one on the identities of those
who undertook the journey. Skull modification during childhood has a
profound and permanent effect on appearance even in adulthood. Their
altered physical appearance remained with these women as a permanent
reminder of a childhood in distant lands and as evidence that they
had travelled far during their lifetime. Nevertheless, they were buried
according to the local practice, with local dress and locally-common
grave goods. Usually nothing but their modified skulls marked them
out as different in any way.
However, we need to bear in mind that both skull modification
during infancy and the manner of the funeral lay outside the control
of the individual and represented identities given by society at the
beginning and end of life (cf. Härkeb: ). One insight into how
these women negotiated events in their adult lives is provided by the
fact that they seemed not to have transmitted skull modification onto
their children in central and western Europe. In contrast, the practice
continued for several centuries in the Carpathian basin. Perhaps
the practical knowledge of the childcare that was necessary for the
modification of skull-shape was no longer available to them, or the
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra78 78 05/06/2009 16:57:40
receiving populations had an altogether different, more rigid, notion
of the human body that was incompatible with the practice of skull
modification. Not being able to continue with a practice that may
have been a fundamental aspect of childcare to these women must have
increased a sense of alienation from their childhood world, in addition
to already being geographically removed from it. It also meant that
the children would become physically more similar to the receiving
population than to their mothers. On the other hand, the adoption of
different childcare practices must have facilitated their incorporation
into the receiving populations.
The distribution of modified skulls across Europe suggests two distinct
modes of migration and mobility. In the eastern group, migration
takes place on a larger scale, over a long period of time, and brings
about a new ‘hybrid’ identity of the receiving as well as the migrating
population. In the western group, this is replaced by evidence for the
directed long-distance movement of a small number of individuals,
mostly women, which may have been motivated by exogamous social
practices. This second scenario in particular does not fit historical
narratives of the early medieval migrations that focus on armies and
the aristocracy as their principal agents. In such narratives, women’s
journeys are considered only when they were married from one gens to
another to forge a political alliance. Otherwise they remain invisible:
they are simply assumed to have followed in the baggage trains of the
great migrations or to have been abducted or bought by travelling men.
Paradoxically, archaeological approaches to migrations focus primarily
on female dress accessories, especially brooches, as the main sources
of information about the paths of the migrations (Hakenbeck :
). Population movements were thought to be visible in female graves
because women conservatively maintained the ethnic identity of their
origins (e.g. Koch : ff.). That such approaches are fundamentally
flawed is highlighted by the examples above, which illustrate that dress
and its accessories were more strongly determined by the receiving
population than by the original one. On the other hand, these examples
also show that migrations and mobility can be interpreted from the
archaeological evidence. We have seen that the movement of women
was a widespread phenomenon across all social strata and was not
primarily linked to known historical migrations. While the women
were eventually buried as locals, their physical appearance was a
constant reminder, both to them and to their new society, of a foreign
childhood and a once-different identity. In the first mode of migration,
Appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra79 79 05/06/2009 16:57:40
80 Mortuary practices and social identities in the Middle Ages
the encounter with different material culture, practices and lifestyles
generated a transformation of identities, but in the second one the
journey itself was the source of the transformation.
I would like to thank Howard Williams and Duncan Sayer for inviting
me to contribute to this volume and for their editorial suggestions.
I also extend my gratitude to Manuel Arroyo-Kalin, Hans Geisler,
Catherine Hills, Marc Vander Linden, and two anonymous referees
for their helpful comments.
Sayer and Williams, Mortuary Pra80 80 05/06/2009 16:57:40
... For the 5 th and the beginning of the 6 th century, the findings of skulls with ACD are mainly centered in the Pannonian Basin, where more than half of the skulls found in graveyards show ACD. It was equally common among males and females and across all age classes [151,152]. In contrast, only isolated individuals with ACD can be found in Bavarian burials of the late 5 th and early 6 th century AD and these are mainly adult females and never children or juveniles [51]. ...
... In contrast, only isolated individuals with ACD can be found in Bavarian burials of the late 5 th and early 6 th century AD and these are mainly adult females and never children or juveniles [51]. Already early on, this pattern was interpreted by some scholars as an indication that the isolated finds of ACD in Bavarian cemeteries around 500 were the remains of immigrant women from the East [24,152,153]. Veeramah et al. [23] have recently been able to show that these women have a strong genetic resemblance to present-day South-Eastern European populations, which was absent in individuals without ACD buried in the same graveyards. ...
Full-text available
During the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire dissolved in the West and medieval empires were founded. There has been much discussion about the role that migration played in this transition. This is especially true for the formation of the Baiuvariian tribe and the founding of this tribal dukedom, which took place from the 5th to the 6th century in what is now Southern Bavaria (Germany). In this study, we aimed to determine the extent of immigration during the beginning of this transformation and to shed further light on its character. To achieve this goal, we analyzed stable isotope values of strontium, carbon, and nitrogen from the teeth and bones of over 150 human remains from Southern Germany, dating from around 500 AD. This group of individuals included women with cranial modifications (ACD) which can be found sporadically in the burial grounds of this period. Our results showed an above-average migration rate for both men and women in the second half of the 5th century. They also indicate that a foreign background may also be assumed for the women with ACD. The demonstrably different origins of the immigrants from isotopically diverse regions, and the identification of local differences in detectable migration rate, as well as indication for different timing of residential changes, highlight the complexity of immigration processes and the need for more studies at the regional level.
... Cases of intentional cranial modification in pre-and early history Europe are known since the fifth to fourth centuries bc but become more widespread with the arrival of nomadic populations from the Eurasian Steppe. Thus, ACD is interpreted as an indication of nomadic incomers, e.g., the historically documented Huns and other nomadic groups associated with a pastoralist way of life (for review see Hakenbeck 2009). Some studies suggest that prolonged weaning times are found in such non-sedentary populations (e.g., Clayton et al. 2006, Waters-Rist et al. 2011. ...
Full-text available
In humans, breastfeeding and weaning depend on the infant’s needs and physiology but are also influenced by environmental and cultural factors. While infant feeding strategies vary across different regions and historical eras, the associated transition from breastmilk to solid foods is universally thought to be stressful. However, still little is known about infant feeding practices and possibly associated stress in former times. This also applies to the period of transition from classical antiquity to medieval times, which shaped modern Western civilization. To enhance the understanding of childhood nutrition and stress during this period, we first analyzed stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in serial dentine samples from the first molars of 38 individuals buried in the region once known as the Roman frontier province of Raetia secunda, now encompassing Southern Bavaria. In addition, we investigated the presence of linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH), known to be a marker of unspecific physiological stress, within their dentition. We used this data to create isotope profiles that display dietary changes in comparison with the occurrence of LEH. We found highly variable δ¹⁵N and δ¹³C values and different shapes of isotope profiles which indicate different nutrition of breastfeeding individuals, complementary foods and post-weaning diets, and individual weaning patterns. For most individuals, the weaning process was completed between the ages of two and three. Interestingly, some females of non-local origin show longer weaning periods, likely displaying the influence of different cultural practices in other communities. We also found that LEH most frequently occurred in the post-weaning phase, which supports the assumption that children were at increased risk once breastfeeding had ceased completely. Furthermore, a change in the post-weaning diet in the seventh century coincided with an increased prevalence of LEH, indicating that the foods chosen or available during this time affected the susceptibility of children to stress. In conclusion, our study unveiled diverse infant feeding strategies practiced across various communities, both in different historical eras and geographical locations.
... The burial, object of this study, was recorded in the first Early Medieval cemetery phase from the archeological site of San Genesio, stratigraphically dated to the sixth century AD. Taphonomic observations, essential for the interpretation of the funerary complex, have been carried out with reference to previous studies (Duday 2006(Duday , 2009Haglund and Sorg 2002), focusing on skeleton position, whether primary or secondary, anatomical connection, and type of decomposition. ...
Full-text available
During excavations carried out at the necropolis of San Genesio, taphonomic analysis permitted the detection of a small nucleus of distinctive graves dated to the sixth century and set within the wider context of autochthonous burials. This group was characterized by features such as wooden coffins and tree trunk burials, elements typical of the Germanic cultural milieu. Furthermore, anthropological analysis of the skeletal remains identified a case of Artificial Cranial Deformation (ACD), a distinctive element of Gothic ethnic groups. Individuals with ACD are extremely rare in the Italian archeological record and are related to the period in which the Gothic migrations took place. The subject, buried in a wooden casket, was a male individual with a deformed skull, polytraumatized, and most likely killed in combat, possibly during the Gothic War. This is the first Italian case of an individual with ACD, who died a certified violent death. The present study, despite the absence of traditional Germanic grave goods, has allowed to hypothesize the existence at San Genesio of an allochthonous group, a theory further supported by strontium isotope analysis.
... Changes in the dental non-metric trait proportions have been associated with this population influx, with little evidence of migration in earlier periods (Sołtysiak and Bialon, 2013). Additionally, the migration of the Huns into Europe may be traced not only by using Roman historical sources but also by the spread of artificial cranial modifications that was typically a Hunnish feature during that time (Hakenbeck, 2009;Mayall et al., 2017), also noted in Maroneia, northern Greece (Tritsaroli and Karadima, 2017). ...
Full-text available
The Near East and Eastern Mediterranean are regions where textual sources appeared much earlier than elsewhere, with the first logographic writing systems invented already in the 4th millennium BCE. Although for some places and for some periods written sources are abundant, the combination of research on ancient texts and archaeological human remains is still relatively rare and often superficial. Some popular research topics within historical bioarchaeology may be identified as studies that focus on ancient funeral rites, reconstructing biographies of people known from written sources whose skeletons have been discovered, research on the catastrophic mass burials, e.g. the results of epidemics or the acts of violence, human lifetime mobility, diet, subsistence, and finally, living conditions in general. Beyond reviewing representative past studies of these topics, this paper also identifies some new potential methods and objectives for regional historical bioarchaeology.
... As a result the displays of social status cannot have been as rigid and xed as Shephard, Arnold or Christlein imagined, varying not just because of social rank, but also due to time of death and who buried the dead. Equally, a gilt brooch was not just a badge of wealth for an adult woman; it was also used in the creation and/or display of regional and personal identities (see, for example, Hakenbeck, 2009). Some individuals have been discovered buried with heirloom objects, many with considerable wear or damage from heavy or long-term use (Eckardt and Williams, 2003;White, 1988;White 1990). ...
... Stroka tako pri sklepanju ni enotna. Nekateri zagovarjajo selitve ljudi, medtem ko so drugi bolj naklonjeni razlagi o prevzemanju prakse od drugod (60,61). Pri tem velja omeniti, da so v slovenskem prostoru znani tudi drugi primeri preoblikovanih lobanj, in sicer iz grobišč Miren in Kranj V Lajhu, ki prav tako sodita v čas preseljevanja ljudstev (62,63), na Ptuju pa so odkrili pokopanega moškega s preoblikovano lobanjo (64). ...
Full-text available
Proučevanje skeletnih ostankov v arheološkem kontekstu je izredno bogat vir informacij o človekovi preteklosti. Pri tem igra palopatologija posebno vlogo, saj pomembno dopolnjuje biološke profile posameznikov in demografsko sliko družbe. Kljub temu se dozdeva, da so paleopatološke študije v Sloveniji še precej redke. Prispevek z rezultati osteološke in paleopatološke analize petih skeletov poznoantičnega grobišča iz Dravelj je tako korak k zapolnjevanju te vrzeli. Ob osnovnih bioloških profilih posameznikov raziskovalec opisuje opažene patološke in druge posebnosti na obravnavanih skeletih ter predstavi možne diagnoze. Kljub majhnemu številu analiziranih skeletnih ostankov se je namreč opazilo precej anomalij, ki na eni strani opozarjajo, kako paleopatološke študije prispevajo k razumevanju skupnosti ter hkrati odpirajo številna nova vprašanja. Poleg prirojenih skeletnih variacij, kot je denimo predrti olekranon ali nenavadno veliko število piramidalnih kočnikov, smo ugotovili tudi namensko preoblikovanje lobanje ter številne patološke spremembe, od neškodljivih tumorjev in težav z zobmi, morebitnih presnovnih bolezni in bakterijskih okužb do bolezni sklepov in osifikacije tkiv že v mladosti ter npr. nenavadno velikega števila primerov tortikolisa. Ker se analiza omejuje le na pet skeletov, ne omogoča prenosa zaključkov na celotno populacijo. Očitno pa je, da so imeli ljudje v obravnavani skupnosti precej nenavadnih običajev, dosti zdravstvenih težav ali pa morda pripadajo različnim »etničnim« skupinam.
Full-text available
Zentrale Fragestellung der vorliegenden Arbeit ist die Art und Weise, wie in den spätwikingerzeitlichen Bestattungen auf dem gotländischen Gräberfeld von Havor die Erinnerungen an und Vorstellungen von Vergangenheit auf der einen und kulturelle Veränderungen auf der anderen Seite zur Konstruktion von spezifischen Identitäten und damit auch zur Legitimierung von Besitz- und Herrschaftsansprüchen instrumentalisiert wurden. Dieses Vorgehen, besonders durch den Aufgriff älterer Bestattungstraditionen und die Nachnutzung älterer Grabanlagen, erlaubt Rückschlüsse auf die Wahrnehmung einer mythischen Vergangenheit in der Wikingerzeit und auf die diskursive Ebene von Erinnerungen und Traditionen als soziale und identitätsstiftende Konstrukte, die keinesfalls als statisch und konservativ, sondern im Rahmen einer invention of tradition, als dynamisch, wandelbar und aktiv manipulierbar begriffen werden müssen. Ein besonderer Fokus liegt dabei neben der Auswertung der spätwikingerzeitlichen Bestattungen auf der chronologischen Entwicklung des Gräberfeldes und dem dazugehörigen Komplex mit Ringwall und Siedlungen in der vorwikingerzeitlichen Eisenzeit. Die lokalen Traditionen und die Vergangenheit, die sich in den Gräbern und sicherlich auch in dem Ringwall und den älteren Siedlungsresten manifestierte, war offensichtlich für die wikingerzeitlichen Hofgemeinschaften von Havor von großer Bedeutung für die kollektive Identität. Theoretischer Ausgangspunkt für diese Analyse ist neben einer Reihe anderer wichtiger theoretischer Konzepte zur Interpretation von Bestattungen als Medien des öffentlichen Diskurses besonders die Neukonzeptionalisierung des Ressourcenbegriffes durch den SFB 1070, der als analytisches Werkzeug eine holistische Perspektive auf das multidimensionale Netzwerk von Perzeption und Inwertsetzung materieller wie immaterieller Aspekte ermöglicht. Die Auswertung des Gräberfeldes von Havor findet damit zum einen mit einem praktischen sowie einem theoretischen Zugang statt, mit der archäologische Auswertung des Fundmateriales und der theoriebasierten Diskussion über die daraus abstrahierbaren Aussagemöglichkeiten. Zum anderen arbeitet die Auswertung auf drei Ebenen: Auf der Mikroebene der einzelnen Bestattungen, auf der Mesoebene des Komplexes von Havor mit Gräberfeld, Ringwall und Siedlungen sowie auf der Makroebene mit der gesamt-gotländischen Perspektive.
Full-text available
BURIAL IN A BED IS A RARE PHENOMENON, but one which is found persistently throughout early medieval Europe. Bed burials are found across a wide geographic area, from England in the west, to Slovakia in the east, and to Scandinavia in the north; while their chronological distribution ranges from the early 5th to the early 10th century. The identities of the people buried in these graves are diverse, including men, women, adults and children, and they are accompanied by a range of grave goods, some particularly well furnished, others less so. The examples from England stand out as a unique group, being mostly adult women, and restricted to the 7th century. This paper will argue that this particularity, along with Christian symbolism in many of the examples from England, is evidence that the bed burial rite was imported into England as a result of women’s mobility associated with Christianisation.
Introduction Artificial cranial modification (ACM) is a widespread cultural phenomenon that has been reported in human populations from Late Pleistocene to present day all over the world. Although ACM techniques have been documented in western and central Mesoamerica, the state of preservation of bone has occasionally limited the possibility of diagnosing and differentiating ACM variants. To explore how informative fragmentary skull remains can be in this matter, here we used 3D geometric morphometrics to quantify shape variation of isolated calvaria bones. Materials and Methods 49 well preserved individuals from west and central Mesoamerica were selected and divided into five groups: four showing distinct forms of ACM, and a control group of unmodified skulls. Using medical computed tomography and laser surface scanning, we measured the 3D shape changes in three isolated calvaria bones. We calculated the morphological differences within and between groups by computing pairwise Procrustes distances for all possible combinations of individuals. Finally, we used 3D digital meshes to describe the shape changes in an ACM variant compared to the other ones and to the control group. Results Irrespective of which bone of the calvaria is considered, the variation between the individuals showing ACM and the unmodified individuals always exceeds the variation measured within the unmodified group. Furthermore, some ACM variants can be characterized by examining certain calvaria bones in isolation. Discussion The study of isolated calvaria bones can help to identify individuals with ACM from the background physiological variation. Our study also provides information pertaining to the techniques employed to produce certain ACM variants and we discuss the standardization of these processes.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.