Archive | Occipital RSS feed for this section

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.

Skeletal Series Part 3: The Human Skull

22 Apr

In this post I will be discussing the basics of the human skull; its anatomical features, number of elements, terminology, key functions and how to handle a skull.  Alongside the earlier blog on variations in human skeleton and the ethics that should be considered, this should prepare the user for interaction and identification of physical remains.

A skull in situ. From the Gadot archaeological site in Israel.

Individual elements found in the human skull, individual elements discussed below (Pearson Education 2000).

 The human skull is one of the most complex structures in the human skeleton.  It houses the foundations for the sense of smell, sight, taste & hearing, alongside the housing of the brain.  It also provides the framework for the first processes of digestion by mastication of food with the use of the teeth anchored in mandible and maxilla bones (White & Folkens 2005: 75).  White & Folkens (2005) go on to note that it is of value that the key anatomical landmarks of the skull are noted.  These include the Orbits of the eye sockets, the Anterior Nasal Aperture (nose hole), External Auditory Meati (ear canals), the Zygomatic Arches (cheek bones) along with the Foramen Magnum (base of the skull).  It is by these landmarks that we can orientate the skeletal elements if they are disarticulated or have been broken (White & Folkens 2005: 75).


Particular care should be taken when excavating the skull, or any human skeletal element.  Careful consideration should be made of its location, burial type, any nearby skeletons, and of course any different stratigraphic (colour/cut/fill) features present should be noted (Mays 1999).  As this is the only chance to lift the skeleton since deposition, careful notes should be made on first impression and any post depositional changes that can be immediately identified.  Careful sieving of the soil matrix around the skull should take place, to help retain any small fragments of bone or lose teeth (whole and partial fragments) (Mays 1999).  Differential preservation, dependent on deposition & burial environment conditions, will mean that it is likely sections of the skull will not survive.  These are often the small, delicate bones located inside the cranial-facial portion of the skull.  The likeliest to survive portions are the mandible and the cranial plate elements because of their tough biological nature.


When handling the skull it should be noted of the above major landmarks.  For example, you will not damage the skull whilst carefully holding it in both your hands but if you hold it by the orbits you are liable to damage the surrounding bone.  The foramen magnum is usually stable and strong it to withstand creeping fingers as a hold place.  Whilst studying the skull on a desk, a padded surface should be provided for it to rest upon.  Care should be taken when handling the mandible, and temptation should be resisted in testing the mechanical properties of the surrounding bone (Mays 1999).

Anatomical Planes

For use between comparative material, it is useful to use a standardized set of viewing planes.  The human skull is often viewed via the Frankfurt Horizontal (White & Folkens 2005).  The FH is a plane of three osteometric points conceived in 1884 (see above link).  The skull is normally viewed from six standard perspectives.  These include norma verticalis (viewed from above), norma lateralis (viewed from either side), norma occipitalis (viewed from behind), norma basilaris (viewed from underneath) and norma frontalis (viewed from the front). Thus, when considered with osteometric points, measurements can be taken and compared and contrasted (White & Folkens 2005: 86).

Cranial Terminology and Elements

  1. The Skull refers to the entire framework including the lower jaw.
  2. The Mandible is the lower jaw.
  3. The Cranium is the skull without the mandible.
  4. The Calvaria is the cranium without the face portion.
  5. The Calotte is the calvaria without the base of the skull.
  6. The Splanchnocranium is the facial skeleton.
  7. The Neurocranium is the braincase.

The skull in infants is made up of 45 separate elements but as an adult it is normally made up of 28 elements (including the ear ossicles) (White & Folkens 2005: 77).  The Hyoid bone (the ‘voice box’ bone) is generally not included in the count of skull bones.  The identification of the elements can be made hard as idiosyncratic differences, and fusion between plates of the cranium, can lead to differences.  A number of elements in the human skull are paired elements; simply that they are part of two identical bones in the skull.  Alongside this there are also separate elements.  The list is below-

Paired Elements

  1.  Parietal bones- Located form the side and roof of the cranial vault.
  2. Temporal bones- Located laterally and house the Exterior and Interior Auditory Meatus.  They also include the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ for short), the
  3. Auditory Ossicles– The malleus, incus and stapes (6 bones altogether) are located in both of the ears, very near the temporal bones (Very often never recovered in archaeological samples).
  4. Maxillae bones- Located proximal to the mandile, houses the upper jaw.
  5. Palatine bones- Located inside the mouth and forms the hard palate and part of the nasal cavity.
  6. Inferior Nasal Conchae bones- Located laterally inside the nasal cavity.
  7. Lacrimal bones- Located medially in the orbits.
  8. Nasal bones- Located distally to the frontal bone, helping to form the upper nose.
  9. Zygomatic bones- They are the cheekbones.

‘Norma Lateralis’ view of the human skull (Pearson Education 2000).

Single Elements

  1. Frontal bone- Located anterior, it is the brow of the skull.
  2. Occipital bone- Located to the rear of the skull, houses the Foramen Magnum.
  3. Vomer bone- Located in the splanchnocranium, and divides the nasal cavity.
  4. Ethmoid bone- A light and spongy bone located between the orbits.
  5. Sphenoid bone- Located inside the front of the splanchnocranium, a very complex bone.
  6. Mandible bone- The lower jaw.

‘Norma Frontalis’ view of the human skull, note the large orbits (Pearson Education 2000).

‘Norma Basilaris’ view of the human skull, note the foramen magnum where the spinal chord enters the skulls to connect with the brain (Pearson Education 2000).

‘Intracranial Superior’ view of the human skull, again note the foramen magnum where the spinal chord enters the skull to join the brain and the thickness of the outer and inner cortical bones of the skull (Pearson Education 2000).

General Discussion

The human skull is a complex part of the body.  It is key in identification of sex by the size of the Mastoid Process, Supraorbital Torus, tooth size, and the squareness of the mandible amongst others; it can also be used in describing age at death by tooth wear, Cranial Suture closure and general porosity of the bone (Roberts & Manchester 2010, White & Folkens 2005, Jurmain et al 2011).  A later post will detail exactly how in further detail.

It has also changed as our species, Homo Sapiens, evolved from earlier hominids.  The morphology of the human skull has certainly become more gracile, and as an indicator and outcome of the agricultural revolution, it seems our mandibular size and muscle robusticity has slowly become less pronounced (Larsen 1999: 230, Jurmain et al 2011).  As Larsen remarks (1999: 226), it is the influence of environment and mechanical behaviour that helps determine the morphology of the skull, alongside considered genetic factors.  It is important we keep this in mind as we look at archaeological material.  Studying population trends in both temporal, cultural and geographic contexts can have important results and can also highlight long term trends.

One such trend is the discussion that a change to a more ‘globular cranial change in the Holocene represents a compensatory response to decrease in functional demands as foods become softer’ (Larsen 1999: 268).  This is underscored in archaeological populations worldwide that consumed abrasive foods with populations that consumed non abrasive foods.  By being affected by food production processes & the nature of the food itself, the morphology of the cranial facial biomechanics has changed to adjust to differing food sources.  This change has influenced cranio-facial size and morphology, occlusal abnormalities, tooth size, dental trauma, and gross wear from masticatory and non-masticatory functions (Larsen 1999: 269, Waldron 2009).

Case Study: A Mesolithic-Neolithic population trend in Ancient Japan

One example of the importance of cranial studies, and of the skull in general in archaeology, is the discussion of population change during the end of the Jomon period of Japan.  Lasting roughly from 14,000 BC to 300 BC, the Jomon culture has evidence for the earliest use of pottery in the world, and made extensive use of the large variety of environments in the Japanese archipelago (Mithen 2003).  This culture has been classed as largely hunter-gather-forager in lifestyle, until roughly the Yayoi period around 300 BC; when the adoption to agriculture was fully implemented with intensive rice agriculture, weaving and the introduction of metallurgy (Mays 1998: 90).

The evidence suggests that the Yayoi were settlers from mainland Asia, with the evidence from craniometric studies and dental studies of both Jomon and Yayoi populations, alongside a comparative study with the modern day aboriginal Ainu people who inhabit the island of Hakkaido, north of mainland Japan.  The Ainu population themselves maintain that they are the descendents of the Jomon people, and with the skeletal data of skull morphology in the modern population compared to the Jomon archaeological data set, the evidence seems to match (Mays 1998: 92).  Population pressures during the end of the Jomon period and movement of the Jomon culture is therefore suggested as a geographic movement.  The skeletal data from the modern day Ainu population, concentrated in Hokkaido, provide evidence of a Jomon movement north due to pressure, as mainland Japanese modern population cranial measurements shows a mix of origin (Mays 1998: 90).

The importance of this work highlights the movement of the adaptation of agriculture in a relatively late time frame, in comparison to mainland Asia and Europe.  The palaeoenvironmental evidence suggests the richness and diversity of the Japanese archipelago, with heavy densities of the Jomon population in 3500 BC located in central and eastern Japan (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 2).

Stable village sites with pits dwellings, storage areas and burial facilities have been excavated and studied, yet there is only a hint of cultivating nuts and plants.  Ongoing date conflicts with AMS results from human and animal bone have suggested the impact of the Yayoi culture to be pushed back to 1000 BC or 900 BC.  However the results could be contaminated with the ‘marine radiocarbon reservoir effect’, a natural distortion of dates and thus a possible need to recalibrate existing dates (Kaner & Ishikawa 2007: 4).  The outcome of the timing of adoption of agriculture in the Late Jomon/Yayoi period is still hotly debated. Yet the archaeological and osteoarchaeological evidence presents a hunter gather society managing to thrive without agriculture in diverse environments until later cultures and migrations of people came into contact with the Jomon culture (Mays 1998).

Further Information


Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Kaner, S. and Ishikawa, T. 2007. ‘Reassessing the concept of ‘Neolithic’ in the Jomon of Western Japan’. Documenta Preahistorica. 2007. 1-7.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Mithen, S. 2003. After The Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC.London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. Stroud: The History Press.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.