Social Identity and Boundaries Probable Reasons for Cranial Modification in Eastern Europe

Recent work by archaeologists in Eastern Europe, including Georgia and Germany, suggests that the practice of cranial modification, introduced to the region by the Huns before the Migration Period (4th to 7th centuries CE), was a means to convey social identity in borderland regions.

Artificial cranial modification (ACM) occurred on every human-populated continent perhaps beginning with Neanderthals, though this may have been an accidental case. A result of sleeping on the hard floor of a cave or rock shelter. Intentional instances of ACM can still be found on all populated continents, however, with the earliest known at 11,000 BCE in Australia. Kathleen Kenyon even found skulls that were later shown to be modified in strata of the Neolithic in Jericho. The practice is also found in the archeological records of Mesoamerica, North America, and South America. It’s been observed in modern times by anthropologists in Africa, Melanesia, and even Albania.

How

How the skulls were transformed is fairly well understood. Accidentally, the human skull can be misshapen by consistent pressure in one or more directions. Sleeping on a hard surface or being bound to a cradle board as an infant for instance.

Intentionally, the skull can be formed to a desired shape by binding the head tightly with cloth or rope as an infant and toddler. The age at which the bindings are applied is critical because the human skull is still very plastic during infancy and toddler years. The cranial sutures haven’t yet fused, the bones are soft, and the binded skull can be guided to a final shape.

The cranial capacity isn’t changed, but prognathism (a protruding maxilla and/or mandible) and displaced and enlarged eye sockets. The nuchal crest can be displaced at the back of the skull, giving the appearance that the foramen magnum is moved-though this remains in its place. Sutures, particularly the sagittal, can obliterate early due to the pressures forcing a closure.

Photo by Didier Descouens via
Wikicommons

Why

Over the years, many archaeologists and anthropologists have hypothesized about why so many cultures intentionally modify the shape of the skulls of their children. An obvious answer to what would be such a profound and permanent change in physical appearance would seem to be social identity or status within society. Other possibilities include ancestor veneration–that this creates a caricature of sorts for an ancestor. Other hypotheses center around aesthetic appeal.

What Mayall and Pilbrow describe in the Journal of Archaeological Science may begin to pin down some evidence regarding the the elusive why?” when it comes to ACM.

The authors suggest that the fact that individuals found with ACM in Georgia and Germany were migrants to these regions and that ACM wasn’t a trend, could indicate this was a means of social identity. They contend that it may have shown “allegiance to shared cultural values,” including cultural boundaries.

In Hungary we may surmise that the Huns saw an advantage in promoting cranial modification as a form of social differentiation during the period of intense social and political change associated with the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Mayall and Pilbrow (2019)

Unlike Georgia and Germany, ACM was being practiced indigenously in Hungary between the 4th and 7th centuries CE, probably due to the influence of Huns. Continuing the practice after the Hunnic Period and into the Migration Period could mean that it had value as a means to maintain social identity and social boundaries during a period of social change and migration.

Mayall and Pilbrow also looked closely at the variety of styles in ACM and noted that there were a greater number of styles in Georgia than in Hungary, even though the practice wasn’t Georgian. These individuals were all migrants to Georgia. The same was true for Germany. This, they believe, is evidence of more than one social group being represented.

We surmise that there were diverse social influences prevailing in maintaining social identity in these regions, but the modified head as embodied agency is central to understanding the increased prevalence of cranial modification in the Migration Period of Eurasia.

Mayall and Pilbrow (2019)

All over the internet (Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, YouTube, etc.) you can find pseudoarchaeological notions about what Artificial Cranial Modification is. Some outright claim they’re aliens. Others hint at some sort of “human-hybrid” (whatever that means). The craziest are the “nephilim” and “annunaki” explanations.

The fact remains that this is something humans have done in cultures on every populated continent since before the Neolithic. In modern, Western terms, a practice like this which has to be done to infants and toddlers to get the desired result for an adult, seems barbaric. But is it so different from piercing ears or navels, tattooing, or circumcision? Perhaps. But, like it or not, it is part of who we are as a species.

Further Reading

Mayall, P. and V. Pilbrow (2019). A review of the practice of intentional cranial modification in Eurasia during the Migration Period (4th-7th c AD). Journal of Archaeological Science, 105, 19-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2018.12.007

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.