Guest Post: An Introduction to Artificial Cranial Deformation from the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević

17 Oct

Maja Miljević is currently an undergraduate student studying archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia.  Her main interest is in physical anthropology, with a research interest in prehistoric archaeology.  Maja has had previous experience of analysing human skeletal remains as a part of a faculty module in the Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, at the University of Belgrade, where she took part in the osteological analysis of a number of individuals dating from numerous Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites located in Eastern and Central Serbia.


Intentional or artificial cranial deformation has been long known through human history, even though many articles have been published during recent years which have been focused on more earlier periods of prehistory.  In order to highlight historic cases that I present this short article on intentional cranial deformations from the European Great Migration period (3rd to 8th centuries AD), with a particular focus on the 5th to 6th centuries AD in modern-day Serbia and modern-day Hungary, which highlights the practices of cultural identification in these cultures in this turbulent period.

Intentional Cranial Modifications

Intentional cranial modification has been documented throughout world prehistory and history across a number of distinct geographic areas and cultural groups.  They date back to the Late Paleolithic period (1) at the earliest example so far recovered (Molnar et al. 2014).  The most well-known cranial deformations are those from the Maya culture in modern-day Mexico in the first half of the 2nd millennium AD, various South American prehistoric cultures, and from Ancient Egyptian populations of the 18th dynasty.

Cranial bones can be modified easily in the younger population, since their cranial bones are soft and elastic.  Artificial cranial modification is largely achieved through the binding of the head, using boards, straps, cords or pads (Hakenbeck 2009).  The deforming apparatus is used for a few days up to six months, or sometimes even longer ranging from 3 to 5 years of use.  Cranial deformities of this kind are done as the results of cultural practice and religious beliefs.  The main goal of this practice is to be distinguished from others within the population and to indicate special social status (White et al. 2012; Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Intentional Cranial Deformation Types

There are five basic types and areas of artificial cranial deformation (abbreviated to ACD where appropriate) and they often involve the use of boards and pads to achieve their distinctive styles:

a) Lambdoid
b) Occipital
c) Fronto- vertico occipital
d) Parallelo-fronto occipital
e) Annular deformation

As seen above artificial cranial deformations includes various or individual regions of the skull where pressure can be applied, such as the occipital, frontal regions, or both together, the mastoid region, and finally the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occipital bone.  These are largely referred to as tabular deformations.  As well as this there is another type practiced that included bandaging, with wrapping materials, called annular deformation, around the full circumference of the skull, which is also performed in early childhood (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012; Molnar et al. 2014; Ortner, Putschar 1981).

Origin in Barbarian World

Origin of this practice among the barbarian world probably started with Sarmatians, Huns and continued with the Germanic tribes (Alan, Goths, Gepids), as the practice was spread across Europe in the mid to late 1st millennium AD.  The practice of skull modification had probably originated in the central Eurasian steppes in the first century AD and then may have been brought to central Europe with nomadic people and various tribal units (Mrkobrad 1980; Hakenbeck 2009).


An example of ACD in an individual from a Germanic tribe, from the National Museum in Kikinda. Photograph by the author.

Thanks to this culturally mediated osteological difference in the skeletal remains in the Great Migration period, it is a key indicator for understanding the process of said migration during the Middle Ages in the archaeological record in this locality.  Not only did they just bury their dead in either settlements or necropolises, it is also likely proof that they had intentions to stay and live there, as demonstrated by the term from anthropology – acculturation (2); they lived in the same houses, used the same tools, and probably dressed like, or as similar to, the Romans themselves.  As it is seen in an example from the Gradina na Jelici site where three juveniles were buried in two basilicas, all with clear intentional deformations and grave goods that are attributed to Germanic tribes, either the Gepids or Langobards  (also known as the Lombards)(Mилинковић 2010).

In Southeast Serbia there is a necropolis site called Viminacium-Više Groblja, where a total of 94 buried individuals have been excavated and in which 31 individuals exhibit artificial cranial deformation attributed to the Gepids.  The Gepids were closely associated to the Goths due to their cultural similarity.  The reconstruction of a Gepid woman was produced and helped to highlight how her cranium was viewed in life and how her hair was tied with organic material, which probably mimicked the wrappings used to shape her head during infancy (Mилинковић 1998; Микић 1993).


Reconstruction of a Gepid woman demonstrating ACD. The reconstruction is based on an individual from the site of Viminacium, a Roman fort dating from the 1st century AD, located in Serbia which was overran by the Huns in the 5th century AD.  The site was rebuilt by Justinian but destroyed completely by the Slavs in the 6th century AD. Image credit: Mикић 1993.

According to Mikić (1985), two female skulls have also been discovered with artificial cranial deformations dating from the Great Migration period in Pančevo.  Modification was probably already visible in the second decade of life and was produced by using tight wrapping materials around the frontal, parietal and occipital bones of the cranium.  There was not only one wrapping material used that produced an annular deformation to the skull, but it was one used long enough in order to produce a high pressure effect to the skull as seen in the x-ray below.


The first skull, as viewed using an x-ray from a lateral aspect, highlighting the distinctive pressurized cranial deformation. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

As for second skull, modification was carried out a little bit differently in this instance.  Wrapping material was also used, but with a heavy burden, which gave the female individual a distinctive saddle recess as demonstrated on the parietal bones, as seen on the x-ray below.


The second skull ,viewed in a lateral aspect on an x-ray, showing the parietal deformation and the distinctive ‘saddle’ shape of the cranium. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

Besides those sites, another interesting archaeological site where there is evidence of this artificial deformation is in Sirmium, a major Roman and barbarian site in Serbia, where there is one male-assigned skull described with a deformation.  It may be possible that there are more buried individuals that belong to Germanic tribes exhibiting ACD.


The Sirmium individual with the skull indicating that ACD had taken place during their infancy. Each plane shown here highlights the effect the cranial modification had on this individual. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

So, it is obvious that they were a probable leader or someone who wanted to be distinguished from others as chosen by the individuals who carried out the artificial deformation on the infant (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).


Reconstruction of a skull from Sirmium, Serbia, described above which highlights the method used to bind the cranial bones in this manner. Sirmium was a populous settlement first founded by Illyrians and Celts and subsequently become a Roman city. In the 5th century AD the city was taken by the Huns and then by the Goths and Gepids. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

In Hungary itself we have a good example of a number of artificial cranial deformations, 9 individuals exactly who display this feature, from the Hun-Germanic period, which can help us to see that there is no difference in sex as both males and females were a part of this practice or at least subjected to it (Molnar et al. 2014).

From an anthropological point of view we need to ask how bad can the physical effects on the individual be?

We know that brain is a complex organ and that any modification or alternation to either it or the cranium may cause physical and behavioral changes in normal cerebral function.  If there is a high degree of deformation it may have influence in vision, worsening hearing ability or even cause epilepsy, depending on what type of artificial cranial deformation is used (O’Brien et al. 2013; Mrkobrad 1980).  Intentional cranial deformation may disrupt the normal closure time of the cranial sutures or produce minor effects like the increase of wormian bones in the lambdoid suture, which in life would be asymptomatic (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).


As we have seen in few historic examples from Serbia and Hungary above, this cultural practice did not stop with prehistoric people and cultures as it was carried out across the globe, including during periods of great migrations.  It is interesting that it had a great influence on the barbarian people and their leaders of this period, and that it continued to be practiced after they had conquered their enemy tribes or warring nations.  It may be hypothesized that they still wanted to be seen differently or to be seen as superior both within and outside their own cultural group.  Unfortunately intentional cranial deformations probably stopped in the Balkans with arrival of Avarians, around the 6th century AD, although the practice still continues today within a modern medical environment.


1. Late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period goes back from some 40,000 to 10,000 years before present.

2. Acculturation is cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adopting to or borrowing traits from another culture.


Hakenbeck, S. 2009. ‘Hunnic’ Modified Skulls: Physical Appearance, Identity and the Transformative Nature of Migrations. In Sayer, D. & Williams, H. (eds). Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. 64-80. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. (Open Access).

Mikić, Ž. 1985. Prilog Morfologiji Veštačkih Deformisanih Lobanja iz Perioda Velike Seobe Naroda. Godišnjak centra za Balkanološka ispitivanja. ANUBiH 23, 21. (Open Access).

Mикић, Ж. 1993. Виминацијум-антрополошки преглед групних гробова римског периода (I) и приказ некропола из периода велике сеобе народа (II). Saopštenja XXV. (Open Access).

Miladinović-Radmilović, N. 2012. Artificial Cranial Deformation. Journal of Serbian Archaeological Society. 28: 301-312. (Open Access).

Милинковић, М. 1998. Германска племена на Балкану. Археолошки налази из времена сеобе народа. PhD Thesis. Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

Милинковић, М. 2010. Градина на Јелици-рановизантијски град и средњовековно насеље. Београд.

Molnar, M., Janos, I., Szucs, L., Szathmary, L. 2014. Artificially Deformed Crania from the Hun-Germanic Period (5th- 6th century AD ) in Northeastern Hungary: Historical and Morphological Analysis. Neurosurg Focus. 36 (4).

Mrkobrad, D. 1980. Arheološki nalazi seobe naroda u Jugoslaviji. Belgrade: Muzej grada Beograda.

O’Brien, G. T., Peters, R. L., Hines, E. M. 2013. Artificial Cranial Deformation: Potential Implications of Affected Brain Function. Anthropology. 1 (3): 2-6. (Open Access).

Ortner, D. J. & Putschar, W. G. J. 1981. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

White, T. D., Black, M. T. & Folkens, P. A. 2012. Human Osteology (3rd edition). San Diego: Academic Press.


One Response to “Guest Post: An Introduction to Artificial Cranial Deformation from the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević”


  1. These Bones of Mine Round-Up Post for 2016 | These Bones Of Mine - January 4, 2017

    […] site also played host to a tantalizing guest post on artificial cranial deformation in the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljevi….  In it Maja introduces the theory behind the aims of artificial cranial deformation, the methods […]

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