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After-Death Manipulation: The Treatment of the Skull in Prehistoric Funeral Contexts

Review Article
Volume 6 Issue 2 - August 2018
DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2018.06.555681
Glob J Arch & Anthropol
Copyright © All rights are reserved by Alessia Zielo
After-Death Manipulation: The Treatment of the
Skull in Prehistoric Funeral Contexts
Alessia Zielo*
Department of Philosophy, University of Padua, Italy
Submission: July 11, 2018; Published: August 22, 2018
*Corresponding author: Alessia Zielo, Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Applied Psychology (FISPPA) - University of Padua,
Italy, Email:
Glob J Arch & Anthropol 6(2): GJAA.MS.ID.555681 (2018) 001
The preservation of the skull (or a part of it) of the dead is linked to the cult of the ancestors and with the idea that the spirit dwells in
preference in the head of the deceased. The practice of the selection and conservation of human skulls is found quite regularly starting from
the last phase of the Upper Paleolithic, the Maddalenian, and then developed during the European Mesolithic period (X-VII Millennium). The
archaeological evidence analyzed up to now: the ritual treatment of the skull, together with the care in the disposal of the bodies, the presence of
attention given to the dead from the earliest.
Keywords: Human skull; Funerary rities; Selection; Conservation; Paleolithic, Mesolithic; Neolithic; Sprinkled; Columbella rustic; Gyraulus;
Lithoglypus; Anthropophagy; Fertility; Lake basin; Death; Skeleton; Inhabitants
evidences related to the treatment of the skull in prehistoric
cultures, reporting examples of burials and archaeological sites
where cases of manipulation were found for practical and / or
ritual purposes. In the cultures of the past, the head was meant
as the seat of the soul, which contained the life force, and which
possessed extraordinary qualities [1]. It was also the profound
symbol of a power closely linked to the concepts of life, death
and fertility [2]. Also, after death, the manipulation of the skulls
showed that the physical remains of the deceased continued
to play an important role in the community life to which he
belonged [1]. Funeral customs and customs concerning the
preservation of some parts of the deceased, always depend on
the religious or animistic concepts of the peoples who practice
them. The analysis of the customs related to the conservation of
human heads makes it possible to highlight some considerations
about the relationships that the various peoples consider
existing after death, between the corpse and the spirit that
animated it in life [3]. The relationship with life and death that
manifests itself in funeral rites already started in the Paleolithic,
where the ritual practices performed on individuals were based
on the manipulations of the bones of the dead. The human skull
was especially important to the point that a true cult developed
There is a rich ethnographic record documenting such
practices of manipulation and for many periods of the historic and
prehistoric past there is abundant archaeological evidence that
       
is the ethnographic comparison that allows to identify aspects
in common, for example, between the Mesolithic communities
in various parts of Europe with the populations of the regions
of Southwest Asia and North Africa. From Atapuerca in Spain
(Homo heidelbergensis) to Bilzingsleben in Germany (Homo
heidelbergensis), to Krapina in Croatia (Homo Neanderthal), to
Predmosti in the Czech Republic (Homo sapiens) human bones
were recurrent elements in the grave goods. In the Russian
Palaeolithic Sungir deposit, a female skull was found above the
skeleton of a man, while in the tomb of two children an adult
femur was found [9]. Since the last phase of the European Upper
Paleolithic, many humans remain reveal deliberate traces of
human manipulations. Everywhere some bones, especially
skulls, have been separated from their respective skeletons to be
kept in non-sepulchral contexts and symbolically integrated into
the everyday life of the living as relics, connected to ancestral
cults or as trophies to be exhibited [10].
The practice of the selection and conservation of human
skulls is found quite regularly starting from the last phase of
the Upper Paleolithic, the Maddalenian, and then developed
during the European Mesolithic (X-VII Millennium). Indeed, in
all European cultures of the Upper Paleolithic we have found
isolated and sometimes manipulated human remains, the most of
them dated between 20000 and 10000 BC. Additionally, in some
cases, the skulls are protected with stone circles as in the case
of the Rond-du-Barry site (Haute-Loire, France) and perhaps
for Abri Pataud (Dordogne, France), while the skull of Rochereil
Global Journal of Archaeology & Anthropology
How to cite this article: Alessia Zielo. After-Death Manipulation: The Treatment of the Skull in Prehistoric Funeral Contexts. Glob J Arch & Anthropol.
2018; 6(2): 555681. DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2018.06.555681.
(Dordogne, France) has been found on two small limestone slabs,
as well as that of Mas D’Azil (Ariége, France) in a niche. Whole
or fragmented, the skulls are manipulated and often separated
from their skeletons to be integrated into everyday life, perhaps
burying them under the houses. This could be pertinent to
relatives or relatively important persons in the group, to be kept
as a memory and circulated from one place to another [10]. As
for the ancient Mesolithic (IX millennium BC), the evidence is
   
be mentioned the Blatterhohle site (Westfalen, Germany). The
analysis of the context suggests that all these elements have
been intentionally located in the same place. The hypothesis that
they were heads belonged to enemies and preserved perhaps
as a memory or warning for rival societies remains valid. Many
skulls, in fact, show signs of cut on the external table and at the
   
In Ofnet (Holheim, Bavaria) cave had been found two
contexts of extraordinary importance regarding the selection
and preservation of human skulls of all age groups and of both
sexes. The pits, not very deep and one meter apart, were located
under the entrance of the cavity [11]. Indiscriminately, both
adults and children are found (Jeunesse 2012). Moreover, most
of the human remains of both pits present traces of violence
      
the vertebrae and on the jaws [12]. A rich kit has been found:
         
ornament, including 223 deer canines and 4250 perforated shells
of Columbella rustica, Gyraulus, Lithoglypus. In Kanaljorden
(Östergötland, Sweden) skull depositions were found on the
banks of a former lake basin: some skulls were placed in water
while two others underwent a real impalement through wooden
supports, still preserved. In both cases, the pole was inserted in
length through the foramen magnus towards the cranial vault.
The deposit is dated between 6029 and 5640 cal a.C., during the
last phase of the Mesolithic [13].
The presence of the small bones of the hands and feet of 12
individuals on the Early Mesolithic site of l’Abri des Autours,
Belgium, in conjunction with a few of cranial remains, suggests
that at least some complete bodies were originally buried, with the
skulls subsequently taken away to be deposited elsewhere [14].
In the Cis-Baikal region in Siberia (~7500-3700 cal BP) about
1300 individual burials present and frequent manipulations on
the skull of the deceased including the decapitation, the post-
mortem removal of the skull from the grave and the treatment
Between the third and the beginning of the second
millennium BC the natural cavities were exploited as a place
of collective burial, according to a typical custom both in the
Apennine and in the Alpine areas. Also, in Italy, funeral practices
of manipulation, displacement and removal of the skeleton are
attested, revealing a strong symbolism linked to the sacred
beliefs and the cult of the ancestors. Recently, a human skull has
been found, dated between 3300 and 3600 BC, in the Marcel
Loubens cave, in the Parco dei Gessi, a few kilometers from
Bologna. It is probably a female individual on whom there are
tiny traces of manipulation of the corpse such as the severing of
tendons, muscles and ligaments [16].
Skull Trepanation and Anthropophagy Practices
Several ethnographic examples support the analysis of
archaeological evidence related to the treatment of skulls in
funerary settings. The preservation of the skull as a talisman
was also observed at the Dahiachi of Borneo [17] and the Papua
of New Guinea [18]. The inhabitants of some areas of Australia
use the bones of enemies as amulets [19]. Among the natives of
Australia there was the belief that, when you want death of an
enemy, you must look for some of his hair and the magician of
the tribe practices certain spells [19]. Some people believe that
spirits need a free passage to penetrate closed places and get
out of them [20]. Concerning the use of cranial drilling in the
treatment of mental illnesses or epilepsy, a reference can be
      
the hole that the operator practices in the patient’s skull.
In human history, cranial trepanation is one of the earliest
operations performed in different parts of the world [21,22].
Evidences of cranial trepanation date back to the Upper
Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods [23-27] almost to modern
times [28,29]. On the body of the dead ritualistic trepanations
were also performed, to make an amulet or for conservation
practices [30]. Post mortem drilling hypotheses from studies
on more recent human remains like the skull of Otranto might
represent a unique evidence of multiple trepanations carried out
to obtain bone powder as ingredient for therapeutic preparations
[31]. Several cases of multiple post-mortem trepanations were
interpreted as cases of experimental surgery [32].
Also interesting are the archaeological evidences that
would testify the practice of anthropophagy for both food and
ritual purposes. There are multiple examples from the sites of
La Placard (Charente, France), Isturitz (Gironde, France) and
Gough’s Cave (Somerset, England) [33-35]. A well-known aspect
of manipulation of the dead in the Magdalenian involves the
 
skulls, and the removal of the facial area and base of skulls was
made through repeated blows. In Gough’s cave in Somerset,
England (~14,700 BC) anthropologists have long studied
evidence for cannibalism in the human fossil record [36]. The
        
       
workers [37]. The human bones belong to four individuals,
including a child around three years old and, show abundant
evidence of gnawing by humans. It seems that every piece of
soft tissue including eyes, ears, cheeks, lips and tongue has been
removed with stone tools. In these ritual practices, cannibals
preserved the vault of the cranium, separating it from the face:
cuts at the base of the skulls and on the cervical vertebrae
indicated this took place shortly after death [33]. Objects were
How to cite this article: Alessia Zielo. After-Death Manipulation: The Treatment of the Skull in Prehistoric Funeral Contexts. Glob J Arch & Anthropol.
2018; 6(2): 555681. DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2018.06.555681.
Global Journal of Archaeology & Anthropology
            
drilled perforation at the left parietal of skull [38].
The Modeling of the Skull in Neolithic Contexts
A ‘skull cult’ is present as an aspect of the early Neolithic
cultures of the Near East. The best-known examples are
        
excavations at the PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) settlement at
Jericho (Kenyon 1956). Others have been found at ’Ain Ghazal,
Beisamoun, Kfar HaHoresh, Nahal Hemar, Yiftahel, Tell Aswad
and Tell Ramad [39,40]. The practice continued into the later
practices in Near Eastern societies, through people’s treatment
of corpses after death, provide evidence about thoughts and
views of life. The skull was treated in special ways (removed,
decapitated, painted, dismembered, plastered, scalped and
cached) as an important part of the human body. The skull had
a relationship with the life and identity of the dead and created
linkage between the living and dead. For the living individual, of
course, facial features provide the most immediately accessible
means of inter-personal recognition [42]. When combined with
skin, hair and eye colour, hair styles and the use of ornamentation
In Jericho (also called Tell es-Sultan), near the Jordan River
in the West Bank, some 55 kilometres from Jerusalem, the
archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 20
than sixty plaster skulls have been found in six sites around the
Levant area, usually dated between 7,000 and 6,000 BC, but
some date back to 8,000 BC. Most of the plastered skulls came
from adult males, but some belonged to women and children.
to model the plaster over the bone and the physical features
      
decorated skulls were portraits of the deceased and were a form
of ancestor worship. The TAC performed in some individuals
allowed to detect some masculine connotations (deep palate,
robust cheekbones, big mastoid, eyebrows ridge) and feminine
ones (lack of nuchal crest, gracile bones) [43,44].
Inside the Cult of the Dead in Italy: The Cemetery
of Fontanelle
In the traditional Neapolitan culture, the rituals of double
burial and the cult of the skull have always been important, being
the skull a place where the soul traditionally resides. To care for
the dead, to take care of their residence, to dialogue with them,
to cry and to offer them gifts are ritual operations that establish
a relationship and exchange regime perceived as indispensable
for the continuation of life and because death had value [45]. The
cemetery of Fontanelle in Naples is an ossuary, located in a cave in
the tuff hillside in the Materdei section of the city. By the time the
Spanish moved into the city in the early 16th century, there was
already concern over where to locate cemeteries outside of the
city walls. Many Neapolitans, however, insisted on being interred
in their local churches. There are 40000 deposited skulls that
constitute a real population of the dead whose identity is not
known [46,47]. The devotees had the custom to lay the skulls
in special wooden cases, identifying them also with a name and
a story, which they claimed to be revealed to them in a dream.
A precise ceremonial was followed: the skull was cleaned and
polished and placed on embroidered handkerchiefs and it was
In this regard, the description of the Parthenopean rite of
double burial is still interesting, as it is still practiced today: <<
      
it is checked that the bones are completely dry. In this case the
skeleton is placed on a special table and the relatives, if they
want, elp to free him from the shreds of clothes and possible
then “disinfected” with rags soaked in alcohol that the relatives,
“to be sure that cleaning is done carefully”, have thought to
procure together with the naphthalene with which the body is
sprinkled and the sheet that it will be periodically changed and
it is the envelope of the body of the dead in its new condition.
When the skeleton is clean, it can more easily be treated as a
sacred object and can therefore be sent to its new home - which
that on a reduced scale reproduces that of the funeral procession
that accompanied the dead man to the tomb [48,49].
         
certain behaviors, even if there are numerous anthropological
researches dealing with this cultural aspect. This article
highlights a very complex ceremony that involved the transition
from the community of who is still alive to that of the ancestors
accompanying the body of the deceased in the various stages of
taphonomic change. The contact with some parts of the body and
with the head was an indication of a profound attention to the
sacredness of death and of the importance of the body treated
in the liminal phase. Taking care of the body could give a sense
of continuity of the past through present and future generations.
The need to ritualize this delicate “liminal” moment is perceived
as more and more emerging in a culture in which death is a
taboo. Not only is the funeral, religious or secular, an important
ceremonial aspect for mourning. It represents an important
phase of transition, of contact and gradual detachment, of the
process of mourning, the accompaniment of the body from a
Death is not an instantaneous event that consumes itself
in the extinguishing of a sigh but a long and gradual process, a
passage from one state of existence to another. For the people of
        
of the soul of the deceased to the realm of the ancestors had to
placement of the body, inhumed or exposed, was temporary
Global Journal of Archaeology & Anthropology
How to cite this article: Alessia Zielo. After-Death Manipulation: The Treatment of the Skull in Prehistoric Funeral Contexts. Glob J Arch & Anthropol.
2018; 6(2): 555681. DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2018.06.555681.
[51-54]; this initial funeral ceremony marked the beginning of a
liminal phase in which the deceased was no longer alive without
yet being completely dead. Practicing the washing of the body,
perfuming it, softening its appearance, is not a way to trivialize
death; instead it is a ritual that serves to share the pain; it is a
way to become aware. It is appropriating the body of your loved
one and be able to let it go. To manipulate his head means to
recognize his identity even in the post-mortem.
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DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2018.05.555681
At times funerary practices do not end with the deposition of the corpses in their final resting place, because occasionally these supposedly definitive burials are disturbed later. When we can confirm that people were mainly responsible for these disturbances, even when other natural taphonomic factors are present, then we have a situation of anthropic postfunerary manipulation of bodies and graves. Some precontact sites in northeastern Brazil have mortuary contexts with “anomalies” in the deposition of bodies into their graves. Applying a taphonomy-based approach, we analyze these cases and compare them to other burials with similar characteristics from central-eastern Brazil in our discussion of the “alternative” phenomenon of postburial manipulation. The evidence suggests that the anthropic disturbance of older burials and corpses should be understood not as a random event, but as an integral and meaningful part of the mortuary practices of ancient inhabitants from across different regions of Brazil throughout the Holocene. With this work we highlight not only unusual mortuary patterns of precontact human groups in Brazil and South America but also the importance of a taphonomic approach to understanding the complexity and variability of funerary and postfunerary actions. //////////////// The associated research – Older Burial Disturbance: Postfunerary Manipulation of Graves and Corpses in Precontact Northeastern Brazil by Ana Solari, Sergio F. S. M da Silva, Anne Marie Pessis, Gabriela Martin and Niede Guidon – is FREE to ACCESS until the end of June 2022.
Full-text available
Archaeological excavations at Göbekli Tepe, a transitional Neolithic site in southeast Turkey, have revealed the earliest megalithic ritual architecture with characteristic T-shaped pillars. Although human burials are still absent from the site, a number of fragmented human bones have been recovered from fill deposits of buildings and from adjacent areas. We focus on three partially preserved human skulls, all of which carry artificial modifications of a type so far unknown from contemporaneous sites and the ethnographic record. As such, modified skull fragments from Göbekli Tepe could indicate a new, previously undocumented variation of skull cult in the Early Neolithic of Anatolia and the Levant.
Contributors 1. Introduction: headhunting as practice and trope Janet Hoskins 2. Lyric, history, and allegory, or the end of headhunting ritual in upland Sulawesi Kenneth M. George 3. Headtaking and the consolidation of political power in the early Brunei state Allen R. Maxwell 4. Severed heads that germinate the state: history, politics, and headhunting in Southwest Timor Andrew McWilliam 5. Buaya headhunting and its ritual: notes from a headhunting feast in Northern Luzon Jules De Raedt 6. Telling violence in the Meratus mountains Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing 7. The heritage of headhunting: history, ideology and violence on Sumba, 1890-1990 Janet Hoskins 8. Images of headhunting Peter Metcalf Index.
We report a case study of cranial trepanation in a male subject 30 to 40 years of age from the Nefteprovod II burial ground in the Anzhevsk archeological site. This burial dates back to the Late Bronze Age, in particular the Karasuk culture located in the Minusinsk Basin on the Yenisei River and on the upper reaches of the Ob River. The left parietal bone had an opening with evident signs of bone healing, as well as signs of inflammatory reaction from both bone plates of the calvarium. The strongest signs of inflammation were located around the trepanation opening at the exocranium, suggesting that it occurred after, rather than before, the operation. Although trepanation was the main cause for the development of the changes noted in the preceding texts, there are no reasons to believe that the subject died from complications arising from infection after trepanation. The patient survived and later died for reasons that may never be determined. Medical necessity was the most likely justification for trepanation. Immersion in altered states of consciousness may also have been a necessary part of the trepanation process as a mode of sedation, along with other shamanic practices, such as consumption of psychotropic substances or ecstatic dance. These data, together with reports of other ante mortem burials, raised questions about the application of anaesthesia and possible techniques of cranial trepanation. These issues and possible postoperative complications are discussed in the following text. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was an English anthropologist who is widely considered the founder of anthropology as a scientific discipline. He was the first Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1896 to 1909, and developed a broad definition of culture which is still used by scholars. First published in 1871, this classic work explains Tylor's idea of cultural evolution in relation to anthropology, a social theory which states that human cultures invariably change over time to become more complex. Unlike his contemporaries, Tylor did not link biological evolution to cultural evolution, asserting that all human minds are the same irrespective of a society's state of evolution. His book was extremely influential in popularising the study of anthropology and establishing cultural evolution as the main theoretical framework followed by anthropologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Volume 2 contains Tylor's interpretation of animism in society.
Across Iron Age Europe the human head carried symbolic associations with power, fertility status, gender, and more. Evidence for the removal, curation, and display of heads ranges from classical literary references to iconography and skeletal remains. Traditionally, this material has been associated with a Europe-wide “head-cult, ” and used to support the idea of a unified Celtic culture in prehistory. This book demonstrates instead how headhunting and head-veneration were practised across a range of diverse and fragmented Iron Age societies. Using case studies from France, Britain, and elsewhere, it explores the complex and subtle relationships between power, religion, warfare, and violence in Iron Age Europe. Reviews: '… carefully crafted and theoretically situated … this book is a tour de force … I would recommend [it] to anyone interested in ancient European cosmology, ritual, power, and identity.' Miranda Aldhouse-Green, European Journal of Archaeology