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The Bioarchaeology of the Human HeadDecapitation, Decoration, and Deformation$

Michelle Bonogofsky

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813035567

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813035567.001.0001

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Contextualizing the Human Head

Contextualizing the Human Head

An Introduction

(p.1) 1 Contextualizing the Human Head
The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Michelle Bonogofsky

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter discusses a wide variety of biological and cultural manipulations involving human heads and skulls recovered from archaeological and ethnographic contexts around the globe, notably, as they relate to early Neolithic modeled skulls from the Middle East. As a biological object subject to disease processes and patterns of physical activity, the skull is one of the most informative parts of the human body. Significant social meaning is revealed by focusing on the various ways in which the head was treated before and after a person's death. This chapter summarizes the case studies in the book and links the practices of decapitation, decoration and deformation with potential religious, economic and political motivations and questions of identity—namely whose skulls were thus treated and why.

Keywords:   modeled skulls, Middle East, neolithic, bioarchaeology, identity

This book is the product of an emerging concern in bioarchaeology: the conceptual status of the human body and its parts in the past—notably, whose heads and skulls were given special treatment and why, whether as ancestor or enemy, as insider or outsider, as adult or child, or as male or female. Ancient human groups collected, buried, enshrined, disinterred, modified, and decorated entire bodies as well as selected portions, paying special attention to the human head (e.g., see Bonogofsky 2006c; Chacon and Dye 2007; Knudson and Stojanowski 2009; Rakita et al. 2005). After over a century of research, we now understand that treatment of the body was dependent upon a network of political, social, economic, and religious concerns. These concerns intersected with the biological characteristics and constraints of the body in diverse but finite ways. For archaeologists, evidence of these complex networks comes primarily in the form of cemeteries, tombs, burials, and human skeletal remains. However, as the authors in this volume demonstrate, documentary sources, iconography, and ethnographic analogy, along with bioarchaeological and biochemical analyses conducted on human remains, help us to contextualize the treatment of the body and provide more nuanced interpretations, such as whether the individuals are local or nonlocal residents (e.g., see Forgey this volume; Montgomery, Knüsel, and Tucker this volume).

Our understanding of the body is significantly informed by the now firmly established approach of bioarchaeology, which integrates biological data and archaeological context, stressing the interaction between biology and behavior of modern populations from archaeological sites (Larsen 1997, 2007). Twenty-first-century researchers are increasingly recognizing the advantages of such an integrated approach and putting it into practice in a variety of temporal and spatial contexts. Such endeavors present significant challenges for researchers, however, because they demand the study and synthesis of the evidence on (p.2) several conceptual levels—that of the individual body and associated artifacts; that of the tomb, mound, or cemetery context; that of the regional landscape; and that of the larger sociocultural context. The advantage of dealing with the human body on several levels is that it provides us with the most complete picture of ancient life—from the embodied experience of the individual to the culturally mediated context of deposition and finally to the physical, cultural, and historical contexts in which individuals lived; negotiated their ages, statuses, roles, and sexualities; ritualized their beliefs and actions; and ultimately died, with their body parts collected, curated, and brought back into the community. Contributors to this volume approach the study of a specific body part—the human head—and its context through analyses based in skeletal, DNA, radiographic, isotopic, documentary, and iconographic evidence as well as in the more traditional study of material culture. In some contributions, the head itself is viewed simultaneously as a biological object—the product of physical processes—and as an object of material culture (Sofaer 2006) to be manipulated in various ways. Implicit in this approach is the recognition that body parts (the head or skull in particular) are objects vested with immense symbolic, social, religious, and political value.

Ethnographers at the forefront of the postmodern focus on gender, identity, ethnicity, and personhood, have produced compelling research that situates elements of the human body within both indigenous cultural contexts and colonialist discourses (e.g., Hoskins 1986; Rosaldo 1980; Taylor 1993). Bodies and their parts function within political economies of power and prestige and serve as social markers for family and ethnic groups. The consumption of the body, for example, can consolidate distinctions between kin groups, as among the Wari of Amazonia (Conklin 1995, 2001). Their postmortem treatment provides an arena for the display of resources and the negotiation of social relationships. However, archaeology reveals that consumption of the body can occur for completely different reasons, as among the Anasazi in the American Southwest, who butchered and cooked nearly thirty men, women, and children for their bone marrow around AD 1100 (White 1992) before abandoning their Colorado location. Bodies and their parts also take their places within mythological and ideological systems—in the reenactment of origin stories, in the dramatization of cosmological events, and in the materialization of the divine.

Individual body parts, notably the head or skull, may take on the role of the body entire, as in the symbolic phenomenon of pars pro toto (e.g., Bienert 1991) or may be imbued with an altogether different sort of meaning. The head (Hoskins 1986; Rosaldo 1980), hair (Leach 1958), internal organs (Lock 2002; Scheper-Hughes 2001; Sharp 1994), and various other body parts have been (p.3) treated in detail (see examples in Chacon and Dye 2007; Hillman and Mazzio 1997) by ethnologists and sociologists, who have illustrated how the body can serve human interests on several social and cultural levels. Bioarchaeologists, who have long viewed the human skeleton as a source of information about the past, are now for the first time addressing how specific parts functioned within sociopolitical networks (e.g., see chapters in Chacon and Dye 2007 for Amerindian studies). This volume deals with what is almost certainly the most archaeologically visible and symbolically loaded body part—the human head.

Treatment and Deposition of the Head

The head or the skull, regarded in many societies as the seat of personhood, ancestorhood, or the soul, is most familiar to archaeologists as a highly salient object recovered in burial contexts. On occasion, burials will be excavated in which the head is missing, as with the early Nasca in Peru (e.g., DeLeonardis 2000) and during the Natufian and Neolithic periods in the Levant and Anatolia, where the cranium, or even the entire skull, was often removed after decomposition of the interred body (e.g., Bienert et al. 2004; Bonogofsky 2001b, 2004, 2006a; Kenyon 1981; Rollefson 1983: 30). Unlike the smaller and more easily overlooked bones of the hands and feet, cranial elements are rarely missed in archaeological contexts unless preservation is exceedingly poor. Ethnographic research allows us to identify several reasons that skulls might be missing from interred bodies: for example, the head may serve as a trophy taken by victorious warriors, as a memento of the deceased recovered by kin, as a political symbol of power and terror, or as a modified object for daily or ritual use.

When recreated, the face of the trophy head or loved one is one of the most concrete images of social personhood (George 1996: 91). Ethnographic examples of mortuary rituals abound in which the skull, usually after soft tissue decomposition, is retrieved from an interment, often for use by relatives or members of the same ethnic group (e.g., Arnold and Hastorf 2008: 163–166; Bonogofsky 2001b: 16–35; Bonogofsky and Graham this volume; Goodale 1985; Keesing 1982). At an early Lapita burial site in Vanuatu, in Melanesia, each interred individual was missing his or her skull, with one exception. This individual was interred with three skulls on his chest. Strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of tooth enamel further singled out this individual as a recent immigrant to the island (Bentley et al. 2007). In this case, we may be looking at an individual with a special social status—that of immigrant—which is marked in burial through the inclusion of skulls.

Sometimes the skull was manually defleshed using special tools before (p.4) decomposition of the soft tissue, as it was during headhunting rituals in British New Guinea (e.g., see Bateson 1932: 408, 1958: 141) and the Torres Strait Islands (Bonney and Klegg this volume). Similarly, from the other end of the temporal spectrum, are three crania recovered from archaeological contexts in the Middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia, that had been intentionally manipulated, polished, cut, and scraped with sharp stone and obsidian tools when the head was still fresh. This early (but not earliest) evidence of defleshing of the human head dates to the intersection between the Acheulean and Middle Stone Age, 160,000–154,000 years ago (Clark et al. 2003). The three crania—belonging to an adult male, a probable adult male, and a juvenile, with clear evidence of cutting, decorating, and polishing (Clark et al. 2003)—are reminiscent of postmortem modifications found on skulls from New Guinea (White and Toth 1991). However, the earliest solid evidence for intentional defleshing of a human ancestor, offering research avenues for the investigation of the beginning of this mortuary practice, involved cut marks made by stone tools to the Middle Pleistocene Bodo cranium from Ethiopia when the bone was still fresh (White 1986).

Regardless of whether the skull was removed following soft tissue decomposition or whether the head was severed before burial, the head becomes a form of material culture—a commodity in some cases—taking on a life history of its own and entering the sociopolitical economy of the living (Appadurai 1986; Hoskins 1989; see Valentin and Rolland this volume for examples from Polynesia). In some cases, the skull may be used without alteration or decoration (Bonogofsky 2006a). More often, humans engage in extensive cultural and physical modification such as plastering, modeling, painting, and adorning with a variety of materials including lime plaster, clay, animal collagen, ochre, shell, and fiber. Sometimes these decorative materials were removed, at times leaving behind damage to the cranium in the form of striations, which can be viewed microscopically, if not macroscopically (e.g., Bonogofsky 2001a: fig. 1, 2001b: pl. 5h). The decorative materials in turn may inform on methods of preparation. For example, at Neolithic ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, three lime plaster “masks” were found broken away—and buried separately—from the three crania over which they had been modeled (Griffin et al. 1998). Although the corresponding skulls were not found, imprints in the plaster indicated that the cranial cavities had been stuffed with grass and that a few teeth were intact in the maxilla at the time of modeling.

Examples of cranial plastering and modeling are known as well from Jericho (figure 1.1) and eight other Neolithic sites in the Middle East (Bienert 1991; Bonogofsky 2001b, 2003, 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b; Özbeck 2009), most recently at Yiftah'el in Israel (Gedalyahu 2008) and at Tell Aswad in (p.5)

Contextualizing the Human HeadAn Introduction

Figure 1.1. Plastered skull decorated with paint and shell (without its mandible), from Neolithic Jericho (D114; J5757). Scale in centimeters. Courtesy of the Jordan Archaeological Museum, Amman; photography by Mohammad Fayyez.

Syria (Stordeur and Khawam 2007). The skulls from these sites continue to be interpreted by many of their excavators and other researchers as evidence of an ancestor cult (with an attendant mythology, discussed and refuted in Bonogofsky 2001b, 2002,2003), while overlooking evidence to the contrary (e.g., Bonogofsky 2001a, 2001b). The ancient practice first made famous by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s has now been documented among several cultures of Eurasia (e.g., Kaiser 2003, 2006; Shishlina 2006; Vadetskaia 2006), among the early coastal inhabitants of Chile (Arriaza 1995), and among Middle to Late Woodland period burials in the Great Lakes region of North America (e.g., Clark 1984; Ossenberg 1964, cited in Wyckoff 1978; Speal 2006: fig. 9; see also Aufderheide 2009 for additional examples from around the globe). In the (p.6) Great Lakes region, not only was clay modeling applied to adult and juvenile skulls but also holes were drilled for suspension, suggesting that such skulls were meant to be displayed and to be seen, although differential treatment of individuals by age was widespread (e.g., Clark 1984).

Other forms of modification include carving or incising the cranial vault, found among the Sepik River groups in New Guinea (Stodder 2006, 2011), and drilling or punching holes through the mandibular rami (Stodder 2006) and the bones of the calvarium in North and South America (Speal 2006; Verano 2001). The foramen magnum at the base of the skull may be purposely enlarged, as it was among the Nasca and Wari of Peru (e.g., see Andrushko this volume; Forgey this volume; Kellner 2006; Verano 1995; Williams et al. 2001). Pieces of the skull may be converted into masks, bowls, or cups (Jacobi 2007: figs. 11.12–11.15; Speal 2006; Verano et al. 1999; Webb and Baby 1957: fig. 2), and parietal disks taken from crania may be used as rattles (Jacobi 2007: 323; Williamson 2007). Conversely, Gran Chacoan warriors of South America took the entire scalp, ears, and part of the face to make drinking cups, discarding the victims’ skulls, except for the teeth, which they perforated and made into necklaces (Mendoza 2006).

Deformation, Trephination, and Scalping

In some cases, radical modifications occur before death, taking advantage of the living tissue to reshape the skull. Cultural practices such as in vivo wrapping of the cranial vault and removal of a portion of the outer bone table produce modification of the skull. These procedures may be performed for aesthetic or health reasons, often leaving postmortem imprints on the skull, including the face (Anton 1989: 264), that offer clues to past social practices such as cranial deformation or trephination. Prehistoric Eurasians practiced artificial deformation, altering the shape of the skull by applying pressure during growth and development of the cranial plates. Applying a board to the head, for example, and wrapping it tightly could achieve pronounced elongation. Sharapova and Razhev (this volume) describe examples of such deformation among the Sargat people of the Trans-Urals and western Siberia. Cases are known worldwide, including among the Nasca of the southern Peruvian coast (Forgey and Williams 2005: 259), and among the pre-Inca Chiribaya in southern Peru (Buikstra et al. 2005: 77–78; Lozada and Buikstra 2006; Lozada this volume). Cranial deformation in this region has been interpreted as the intentional marking of a member of a specific ethnic group—essentially, the creation of a social person (Silverman and Proulx 2002: 69–70). The Nasca style of deformation took a bilobated form with bilateral extensions of the parietal region; a second form, similar to that of the Sargat, is more elongated (p.7) and conical (Williams et al. 2001). Deformation is also known from central Saharan Libya (Ricci et al. 2008), the ancient Near East (Fletcher et al. 2008; Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl 1981; Molleson and Campbell 1995; Strouhal 1973), the Eastern Woodlands of North America (Webb and Baby, 1957: 51–53, 55), Mesoamerica (Geller this volume; Mendoza 2007: fig. 14.11), and several other cultures of the Andes (Allison et al. 1981; Blom 2005; Hoshower et al. 1995).

Skull deformation at the Near Eastern settlement of Jericho during the Neolithic period included two basic types—a lengthening of the skull backwards (deformato tabulae oblique) and a shortening of the skull (deformato tabulae erectae)—evident in both males and females well as children and adults. Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl (1981) found intentionally deformed crania in all areas of the settlement, involving skulls that had been plastered and painted as well as skulls that were otherwise untreated. The only division they noted between the two types was based on location: only artificially elongated skulls were found in the central part of the settlement, while the shortened skulls were found only in the northern and southern areas. One plastered skull—belonging to a young adult male (Bonogofsky 2001b: 147–148, tables 4.8, 5.2)—that had been excavated from the northern area, reportedly appeared trilobed with signs of healed trephination beneath the plaster on the right parietal (Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl 1981: 438, 441, pls. 57a, 57b). Elsewhere, people pierced their nasal septa and filed, ablated, incised, and inlaid their teeth (see Geller this volume; Clark and Colman 2008: fig. 2 for references to Mesoamerican use of dental modification). These manipulations of the skull and dentition literally ossify social position, making elite group membership permanently visible and thereby conveying a sense of its immanence and inflexibility. Trepanning and scalping may also mark ritual or specific events within the life of an individual.

Trephination—the surgical removal of a part of the skull, whether through scraping, drilling, cutting, or incising—is done to relieve serious medical problems such as the effects of skull fracture or some other defect or disease process that produces intracranial pressure, but the process itself can cause infection, brain injury, and even death if the dura is penetrated (Arnott et al. 2003; Aufderheide 1985; Nystrom 2006; Ortner and Putschar 1985; Stewart 1958; Weber and Czarnetzki 2001). Trephination could result in visible changes to the head and scalp, making evidence of past trauma apparent, as with a Mesolithic frontal bone from the Muge site in Portugal. This cranial bone displays a depressed fracture with clear signs of trephination (Crubézy et al. 2001: fig. 4; see Andrushko and Verano 2008 for examples from Peru). However, there are instances of trepanned crania with no evidence of fracture or concussion (e.g., Littleton and Frifelt 2006). In these cases, the procedure (p.8) has been explained as a treatment for complaints such as sinusitis, epilepsy, neuralgia, and psychiatric conditions. However, the procedure may also be associated with ritual, as has been suggested for the Neolithic period in France (Aufderheide 1985: 122). There, multiple trephinations were performed on women usually lacking other signs of trauma. Small discs of bone were subsequently cut postmortem to include portions of these premortem defects and were pierced to accommodate a necklace cord, possibly to permit them to be worn as amulets.

Like trephination, scalping may result in lesions on the skull that can be detected macroscopically. Although violence is often cited as the reason for scalping, other explanations (many with support from documentary sources) include punishment, treatment of head wounds, and even as part of a ritual sequence (Mednikova 2002; see Andrushko this volume). Given the context in which some of the scalped individuals have been recovered, magical or religious acts are reasonable suppositions. Evidence for scalping seems to occur most commonly in association with other kinds of trauma, as at the Mississippian site of Orendorf, Illinois, where scalped individuals were found with others who had suffered decapitation or blunt-force cranial trauma (Steadman 2008). Similar patterns have been identified on the northern plains of North America, where women and children, as well as warrior-age males, were scalped (Owsley 1994). Although the ancient Greeks made much of scalping by the Scythians (Murphy et al. 2002), knowledge of the true extent of the practice is only now emerging through analysis of cranial remains. The practice is associated with warfare in South America (Métraux 1963), but cases of scalping are also reported from Eurasia (e.g., Mednikova 2002; Murphy et al. 2002).


Decapitation, or beheading, either as a perimortem action or as a form of execution, appears to have played a symbolic role in addition to its effectiveness as a mode of dispatch. In medieval and early modern European contexts, decapitation represented the literal severing of the mind from the body. In medieval Ireland, accounts of court rulings during the period of English control of Ireland (from the medieval period until the early nineteenth century) indicate that those convicted of treason were publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered, with their heads and quarters mounted on the city walls for all to view. Skulls excavated from the perimeter of high-status medieval dwellings and from along the walls of cities such as Dublin many times bear evidence of decapitation and other trauma and are thought to have been displayed similarly on (p.9) walls, gates, and towers (O'Donnabhain this volume). In England, beheading physically ended the link between traitorous speech and the treacherous body and was considered a more noble—and less painful—death than drawing and quartering, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Lewis 2008). The infamous deaths of Mary, Queen of Scots, by axe and the French royal family by guillotine are two examples in which perceived treachery—either to a queen or to a cause—was ended with a blade. Throughout the English medieval period, decapitation was followed by display of the head as a preferred form of death and spectacle. Heads were occasionally retrieved from public display, as from above the gatehouse on London Bridge, and kept by relatives as relics or mementos. The head of Sir Thomas More, who was decapitated by axe on the orders of Henry VIII, was displayed on the bridge until his daughter retrieved it. It was reportedly interred with her (Anonymous n.d.).

Roman period burials in Britain (Montgomery, Knüsel, and Tucker this volume) and Iron Age bog bodies (e.g., Kelly 2006) exhibit decapitation, as do medieval remains recovered from Irish settlements (see ƠDonnabhain this volume, for literary as well as skeletal evidence). Lincoln 1991 observed a similar pattern among the ancient Scythians of western Asia, who punished forswearing of oaths to the king by beheading. Loss of the head and the head as a source of luck, power, or knowledge are prominent themes in mythology (e.g., ƠFlaherty 1988), and archaeologists working in the United Kingdom occasionally turn to Celtic myth as a source of interpretation. At a late Roman period burial site in Bedfordshire, excavators recovered several decapitated individuals amid more-numerous extended burials in which the heads were intact and articulated (Boylston et al. 2000). They suggested two possible explanations: first, that decapitation was the result of endemic warfare; second, that decapitation was intended to facilitate the protective role of the head after death. In support of their hypothesis, Boylston and colleagues (2000; see also Wright 1988) pointed to several myths, including that of the Celtic hero Bran, in which heads continued to guard, provide wise counsel, or otherwise benefit the living community after being severed from the body.

Decapitation has also been identified as a ritual facilitating collective representation. Two Mississippian examples, Dickson Mounds and Cahokia Mound 72 (Fowler et al. 1999), involved the headless burials of four males. Brown 2003 observes that the replacement of the heads of the deceased with distinctive ceramic vessels supports an interpretation that downplays the personhood of each man, instead highlighting the role of mythic hero in the reenactment of a cosmic event. In this example, decapitation has nothing to do with the deceased as persons, that is, the deceased were not decapitated (p.10) because of their individual statuses, offenses, or roles. Rather, their final acts in ritual performance—embodying cosmic heroes who suffered decapitation—resulted in their headless interment.

Decapitated individuals may be recovered more frequently archaeologically than is perhaps realized; this relative invisibility in the literature, with some major exceptions, is perhaps the result of an apparent lack of patterning, the perplexity with which investigators regard such finds, and the absence of an osteoarchaeologist on the team. As a result, reports often fail to include pertinent data, such as whether the mandible or cervical vertebrae are included and whether the bone has been modified by cut marks or evidence of trauma, as noted by Berryman 2007: 378) among the Maya. At several sites in the United Kingdom, however, patterns in decapitation are emerging at so-called execution cemeteries. Janet Montgomery, Christopher Knüsel, and Katie Tucker (this volume) discuss a Roman period cemetery from Yorkshire in which over half of the interred were decapitated, presumably as a form of capital punishment. Anglo-Saxon, as well as Romano-British, execution cemeteries with evidence of decapitation have also been identified (Harman et al. 1981). For example, at Walkington Wold, Yorkshire, bodies and crania were buried separately and many crania exhibited occipital blade injuries (Buckberry and Hadley 2007). Farther afield, three beheaded individuals were identified in an Avar cemetery in Austria amidst a much larger (n=540) group of interments (Wiltschke-Schrotta and Stadler 2005). Significantly, in the Avar case as well as in several of the British examples, many of those individuals who were decapitated also exhibited other unusual features, such as burial in a prone position or grave goods that were qualitatively and quantitatively different from those of the rest of the cemetery population.

Human sacrifices represent a special group of decapitated individuals. Although human sacrifice took many forms in the past, decapitation appears to have been a preferred method in many state-level societies, especially when the victims were male, as with captured and sacrificed enemy rulers in the Maya area as part of a ballgame (Miller 1999: 356–357). At the Moche site of Dos Cabezas on the North Coast of Peru, a structure containing eighteen severed heads (sex unreported) was excavated. On the basis of cut marks on the anterior portions of the cervical vertebrae, either the victims had their throats slit or their heads were removed by blades entering from an anterior position (Cordy-Collins 2001). In contrast, women who were sacrificed among the Moche were usually strangled with ligatures (Verano 2001). Not a single Moche female decapitation has been reported in the literature, suggesting that among the Moche, specific modes of death were associated with one sex or the other and that the meanings attached to such deaths differed significantly.

(p.11) Another example of sacrificial decapitation comes from the Shang dynasty capital at Anyang, China, which contained multiple royal tombs with both human and animal sacrifices. In at least one case, headless, sacrificed individuals were placed face down in a tomb (Chang 1983: 326–331, esp. fig. 282), while elsewhere skull pits containing as many as 33 skulls were excavated. Published photographs suggest that the skulls were interred while still fleshed, as the mandibles and crania were articulated. These pits represented the remains of at least 398 individuals, with at least 80 percent of them males (Li 1977: 256–257, figs. 258, 259). Smaller deposits to the east of the main tomb complex, interpreted as additional sacrificial pits, contained a minimum of 209 skulls; 192 postcranial skeletons, presumably the source of the skulls, were also excavated (Li 1977: 90). Clearly decapitation was considered the preferred form of sacrificial death, at least for men. The sex bias in skulls from sacrificial contexts may indicate that they belonged to war captives. Documentary evidence indicates that as many as 300 captives from the neighboring polity of Ch’iang were sacrificed in a single ritual event, and there is abundant evidence of divination to determine whether, for example, a sacrifice of fifteen Ch'iang or one cow would be preferred (Chang 1980: 194, 228–229). Chang 1980: 124) observes that, in contrast to burials of complete bodies, which included grave goods, deposits of skulls or postcranial remains at Anyang were generally devoid of furnishings, suggesting that those who were decapitated belonged to a separate, likely inferior, social group.

These cases suggest that in some cultural contexts decapitation is associated with a particular social status that has archaeological referents. That status may be negatively valued, as with a criminal or stranger, or positively valued, as with a postmortem guardian or an honored immigrant, as in the Lapita example (Bentley et al. 2007). Those who were decapitated for sacrificial purposes are also marked in such a way as to distinguish them from other deceased individuals. Generally, individuals found in tomb contexts are laid out in patterned form. At Anyang, some sacrifices were lined up in an orderly row prone and extended, presumably after death. Similar patterning was observed at the Mississippian period Cahokia Mound 72, where four males were arranged face up, extended, and headless (Fowler et al. 1999).

Deposition and Context

Whereas death by decapitation was a preferred execution method in many ancient societies (and thus leaves its mark osteologically as well as in the form of historical documents or, occasionally, eyewitness accounts), the final disposition of the head is often undocumented (see Stojanowski and Duncan this volume for an example from Spanish Colonial Georgia). In these cases, (p.12) archaeology may be the only way that a critical source of information about the past can be retrieved. Heads and skulls, and the ways in which they were treated once their use-lives ended, hold special importance for bioarchaeologists. Not only can the skull provide us with an enormous amount of information regarding the age, sex, genetic heritage, geographic origin, and health of an individual but also the context and treatment of the object can throw light on perennial concerns of social status, ethnicity, and embodiment. Though ethnographic and ethnohistoric research provides us with evidence of human skulls curated as mementos of ancestors or used to decorate or protect structures, archaeologists frequently recover heads or skulls that have been separated from their owners in three contexts: buried in caches, deposited in nonfunerary ritual contexts, or accompanying the dead in burial.

Recent excavations at the Wari site of Conchopata (AD 550–1000) in the central Peruvian Andes uncovered thirty-three trophy heads in situ, directly associated with animal bones and smashed ceramic urns depicting trophy heads (Tung 2006; see also Andrushko this volume). The combination of trophy head iconography along with the actual heads—of twenty-five adult males and eight children aged from three to six years—provides a means to reconstruct the social life of trophy heads within Wari society. Tung 2006: 137) proposes that the severed heads may be evidence of “ritual battles, secular acts of violence against enemies, ancestor veneration, or some combination thereof.” Relative to this discovery, the Nasca people of the South Coast of Peru interred the heads of both men and women in caches, as many as forty-eight heads at a time (Browne et al. 1993). Given the optimal preservation conditions in some parts of Peru, many heads have survived with tissue intact, complete with cords for suspension and thorns holding the lips closed (Browne et al. 1993; Proulx 2001; Verano 1995; Williams et al. 2001; see also Forgey this volume).

Other examples of skull caching include two sets of skulls (twenty-eight skulls in one set, six in the other) cached in the Mesolithic cave site of Ofnet, Germany (Armit 2006; Frayer 1997; Orschiedt 1998, 2001, 2005), and a Late Classic Maya pit context at Colha that yielded the skulls of thirty men, women, and children (Massey 1989; Mock 1998). The Ofnet skulls had been placed in pits as fleshed heads—some with perimortem trauma as well as cuts to the vertebrae indicative of decapitation—belonging to individuals ranging in age from neonate to elderly, with a preponderance of very young children and women. The heads were treated with ochre and deposited, along with shells and tooth ornaments, in a circle facing west toward the cave entrance. Similarly, another skull nest containing the three carefully placed heads of a male, female, and disabled hydrocephalic child were found forty-nine kilometers from Ofnet. These heads also displayed perimortem injuries and cut marks to (p.13) the cervical vertebrae along with an association of red ochre, similar to that found at Ofnet.

These skull caches almost certainly represent interplay between violence and ritual, with massacre suggested as a possible interpretation for both the Ofnet and Colha caches. As ethnographic studies indicate (e.g., see Bonogofsky and Graham this volume), these heads, skulls, and crania may have been used for display and then intentionally hidden from view (see also Bonogofsky 2006a, 2006b). Regardless of whether ritual, massacre, or some combination of the two processes occurred, the fact that heads, skulls, or crania (rather than some other body part) were cached is itself significant. The Ofnet and Colha cases alike represent divergences from the normative funerary practices more commonly encountered in these regions; how these examples fit into a given belief system and what heads or skulls meant to the groups that cached the objects is open to interpretation (e.g., Armit 2006).

When skulls are recovered archaeologically from a nonfunerary context, they are generally presumed to be the remains of a past ritual event. While it is possible that some of these deposits are funerary deposits, such finds may or may not stand in contrast to normative burial patterns of the culture under study. Verano and colleagues (1999) reported on the skulls of two adult males recovered from a niche in a residential context at the site of Moche in Peru. They interpreted the deposit as an offering for two reasons: first, niches are generally associated with dedicatory rituals in the Andes; and second, the normative Moche funerary practice involved inhumation burial in extended position. A second example involved Tlingit mummified or dried heads wrapped in matting and placed in boxes in caves in southeastern Alaska during the protohistoric period. One of the heads belonged to what appeared to be a high-status Tlingit adult female adorned with a labret lip ornament. De Laguna 1933: pl. 28) interpreted the deposit as storage for a set of curated trophy heads redeemed by the victims' relatives, as no other skeletal elements were present. She further noted that the preservation of human heads was not an ordinary Tlingit burial practice.

In addition to cache contexts and nonfunerary ritual deposits, skulls or their individual elements, as well as fleshed heads, may be recovered in association with a deceased individual in a burial context. In other words, a complete body may be interred with an “extra” head, either alone or in sets. The Lapita interment with three skulls, discussed above, is one example of this practice (Bentley et al. 2007). Another concerns the Neolithic site of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia. An older adult female in a flexed burial was holding to her chest the plastered skull of a younger adult female (Bonogofsky 2006a: figs. 11a, 11b; Boz and Hager 2004). The burial was inside a plaster platform over (p.14) which a ritual structure had been built, leading one to wonder about a genetic relationship between the two individuals as well as their social standing within the community. In the central United States, Hopewell funerary contexts in the Ohio River valley have yielded both crania and mandibles in association with elite burials (Seeman 1988). Due to the presence of similarly modified human mandibles and predatory animal jaws, Seeman 2007 finds it likely that trophies of human body parts may link back to the more ancient practice of taking and displaying animal trophies.

During the Natufian and Early Neolithic periods in the Levant and Anatolia, however, cranial removal after decomposition of the body (Bonogofsky 2001b) became an increasingly common mortuary practice, attested first in the Natufian by isolated skulls (Goren and Bar-Yosef 1973) and headless skeletons, then in the Neolithic by caches of skulls and crania as well as headless bodies excavated from numerous settlements (see Bonogofsky 2001b). The practice of cranial removal culminated with the decoration of skulls and the use of lime plaster or marl to model facial features thereon (e.g., see Bonogofsky 2001b, 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b). Isolated postcranial remains as well as cranial fragments found with groups of skulls generally are overlooked in discussions of the skulls (Bonogofsky 2001b: 190–191), unless the skulls are found with an intact postcranial skeleton (e.g., Kenyon 1981: 78, pl. 60b) or as with the plastered skull from Çatal Höyük (see above). Examples of modeled skulls have been recovered from ten Neolithic sites, either individually or in caches containing up to fifteen skulls and crania of adults and children, males and females, usually in proximity to domestic structures (Bonogofsky 2006a: 25, 2006b; although see Goring-Morris et al. 1995 and Garfinkel 2006 for further discussion of architecture). They derive from contexts that include placement on mud-brick furniture, in graves, under plastered floors, in abandoned and built-over houses (in leveling fill), and even on floors of burned houses, along with other human—as well as faunal—remains, statuary fragments, and other cultural objects (see Bonogofsky 2001a, 2001b, 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b).

Deposits of modified and curated skulls or their components have been interpreted as grave goods, the remains of ancestors, or trophies. These categories are not mutually exclusive, as discussed in the section on social functions below.

The Head as a Social and Biological Object

The human head contains a wealth of information, both culturally and biologically, as many bioarchaeologists who have studied the head or skull highlight. Depending on the needs of a society, the body and its parts might be employed (p.15) to emphasize relationships with the dead, serve as powerful ritual objects, embody a specific concept or set of qualities, or mark social status or kinship (see chapters in Bonogofsky 2006c; Chacon and Dye 2007). Although human groups share the symbolic potential of the body, most notably the head, the ways in which heads and skulls are altered, used, and displayed take culture-specific forms. So why is the head—rather than, say, the forearm or the foot—considered across cultures to be an especially noteworthy part of the body?

One reason for the prominence of the human skull in ancient societies (and in the archaeological imagination) is the way in which the head and face identify a person and communicate his or her role, status, lineage, age, sex, and gender. The distinctiveness of the head, its face, and hair are reflected in the treatment of the skull and in beliefs about the head as the seat of personhood, individuality, ancestorhood, and consciousness. Thus, the head or skull may represent or symbolize the entire body or person both before and after death. Premortem alteration and postmortem embellishments further highlight the skull as the defining bodily element and ensure its recovery, curation, and use as a potent symbol imbued with meaning at the level of the person, the lineage, or the ethnic group.

The intensive use of the skull prehistorically, when coupled with the research interests of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropologists, provides us with an unparalleled source of information about the past. Early anthropologists often collected only skulls and crania, viewing them as intrinsically more interesting and informative than postcranial bones (e.g., Kenyon 1961: 147). Some investigators are returning to these early collections, recovering DNA and applying a century of osteological knowledge to reanalysis. For example, Müller and colleagues (2008: fig. 4) identified plagiocephaly while restudying the cranial series from the Celtic burial ground at Münsingen-Rain, first excavated in the early 1900s. Although unable to recover ancient DNA, they attributed the marked obliqueness of the skull to a hereditary congenital condition in which the musculation of the shoulder is unilaterally shortened, causing an individual to hold his or her head at an angle. Through analysis of an existing forty-nine skulls in concert with excellent chronological control, Müller and colleagues (2008; see also Kutterer and Alt 2008) determined that the cemetery contained members of two founding lineages who were likely bound through kinship and marriage.

A similar biological association appeared at Early Neolithic Jericho. Through morphometric analyses of the skeletal material excavated in the 1950s, Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl (1981) determined that at least seven of ten skulls from a skull cache composed of five adults and five children were elongated, although the skull of a middle-aged female was shortened (due in part to in (p.16) vivo cranial deformation). In addition, Kurth (in Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl 1981) diagnosed an extremely arched bony palate between a narrow parallel dental arch in all nine undamaged specimens from the skull cache. This factor, along with the segregated forms of artificial skull deformation noted above (in the section on deformation, trephination, and scalping), convinced Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl (1981: 442) that the Neolithic dead at Jericho came from three small, restricted reproductive groups that were different in morphology and behavior. Further supporting evidence for close biological relationships at Jericho arose with my assessment of six plastered skulls from an existing ten specimens—for the presence or absence of dentition—using CT scans, direct observation, and photographs (Bonogofsky 2001b, 2002). All six appear to lack third molars, thus possibly indicating genetic relatedness (see Smith 1973 for third molar agenesis at Natufian Hayonim). Only one of the plastered skulls had been modeled with its osseous mandible intact; the others consist of crania crafted to look as if the lower jaw were included (Bonogofsky 2001b: pls. 3a–3c, 2002: fig. 1; see figure 1.1).

The skull as seat of personhood, the role of the face as identifier and communicator, and the malleability of the cranial bones combine to provide archaeologists with an object laden with meaning, one that could be invested with potent symbolism or could serve as a social or biological signifier individually or collectively. Ethnographic research, historical documents, and material remains reveal patterning across cultures in the selection and use of the skulls of specific individuals, a topic I address below.

Social Functions of the Head

Anthropologists have documented a variety of functions of the human skull across cultures—for example, as a symbol of established power among the medieval Irish and British and as an object of trade and exchange in Melanesia and Polynesia. The head of an ancestor or enemy could serve as a symbol of prestige, bringing both resources and protection to a village. Family members, leaders, mourners, and victorious warriors were among those with a vested interest in how the body—and the head—was treated. The skull functioned as both a physical and a social object, and even, under certain conditions, as a subject (e.g., see ƠDonnabhain this volume).

The decapitated, decorated, deformed, or otherwise modified head or skull may also be approached as an object of material culture (see Stojanowski and Duncan this volume). Below, I identify several examples of emic explanations from the point of view of insiders, involving distinctions meaningful to the culture under study, and etic interpretations of function from the perspective of outsiders, involving concepts and categories that are meaningful to Western (p.17) observers. These two aspects may overlap, or they may be mutually exclusive within the same culture or ethnic group.

The archaeological contexts for such skulls and heads include trash or midden deposits; private and public spaces; funerary, ceremonial and ritual contexts; domestic areas; and areas under and within structures, including within walls and wall foundations, as well as in caves and rock shelters. In many cases, the use and function of the skull falls into several categories (see Buckberry 2006 for heads taken from individuals at both ends of the social spectrum in Anglo-Saxon England), demonstrating the skull's versatility as sign and symbol.

As noted in chapters in this volume (e.g., Bonney and Clegg), skulls, whether plain or decorated, have been used in divination and sorcery. However, skulls also figured in the avoidance of trauma. As discussed by Levene (2009), skulls inscribed with Jewish Aramaic magic incantations attest to the use of skulls by Jews during the Talmudic era in Babylonia to ward off ghosts or demons. These skulls seem to have served a purpose similar to that of the more than two thousand magic incantation bowls recovered from modern-day Iraq, dating from the third to the seventh centuries AD. Various media such as ceramic, parchment, tin, lead, copper, silver, gold, and eggs, as well as human skulls, were used as surfaces on which to inscribe protective formulas against demons thought to cause sickness, death, and other medical problems in Mesopotamia. Some of the demons being warded off (referred to as “Liliths” on the skulls studied by Levene [2009]) were thought to cause the death of infants, such as the baby snatcher Lamashtu. Skulls were used contemporaneously as well in attempts to raise the dead through necromancy (Levene 2009).

The idea that the human head or skull has the ability to ward off evil or misfortune has been documented in several contexts that are more recent. Goodale 1985: 240) recorded a practice among the Kaulong of Papua New Guinea, where the skull of the deceased is passed through a trading network and fulfils a protective function at each household along the way. Elsewhere, Williams 2006 suggests that the removal of the head, either before or after burial, may have served an apotropaic function in the case of a “bad” or “deviant” death in Anglo-Saxon England.

A related belief is that the body of the deceased might harbor dangerous forces and that the danger or threat may be averted through decapitation. Lovisek 2007 discusses how the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast of North America decapitated their enemies to release the soul both to obtain the soul for reincarnation and to prevent the soul from returning to the body and harming the victor.

(p.18) Conversely, keeping the body intact was at times equally important, as noted for those who may have been perceived as “other” among island groups in Melanesia. For example, only two categories of people in the Trobriand Islands did not have their skulls removed after death. Weiner 1976: 69, 82) suggests that the elderly may have been excluded from skull removal because of a perceived loss of beauty and fecundity, while suspected sorcerers were buried face down to prevent the spirit's return to the village. Similarly, Bonney and Clegg (this volume), in their review of Haddon (1935), point out that although both adult males and females were mummified in the Torres Strait Islands, this treatment excluded cultural outsiders: the elderly, children, and those thought to have died of disease.

Further examples of the perceived protective powers held by skulls include their use as foundation deposits, which generally involve ritual objects placed to protect—and thus prevent—a building from falling into ruin. This may have been the intent at Early Neolithic Jericho, where isolated skulls and crania of adults and children were recovered from walls and wall foundations, from under the corner of a house, and from building fill, suggesting their placement as foundation deposits (Bonogofsky 2006a). In addition, five infant skulls severed along with their cervical vertebrae were found in the stone foundation of a plaster basin in a ceremonial building, leading their excavator to interpret them as foundation deposits (Kenyon 1981: 9, 49).

Another function of the head or skull is to represent the entire person. The trophy heads associated with the Nasca culture (100 BC–AD 700) of southern Peru may have been used this way, although Kathleen Forgey's work (this volume) indicates that the heads may not have been “trophies” after all, as the idea of the trophy head generally implies that the skull or head of the deceased was curated or displayed in order to demonstrate prowess in warfare. Another relevant example includes the Gaulish Iron Age practice of hanging the heads of defeated warriors from the necks of horses (Armit 2006).

“Trophy” heads are a symbol-laden representation of an enemy. Heads serving as trophies of war—and the motivations behind their collection—have been discussed for the New World by numerous researchers (e.g., see Chacon and Dye 2007 for Amerindian examples). Such trophy heads may be redeemed at times by the victim's relatives, as noted above in de Laguna's (1933: 32–44, pl. 28) description of three Tlingit trophy heads found in a cave in southeastern Alaska.

The head or skull of the deceased may be decorated, curated, and otherwise manipulated, by which means either the deceased as an individual or the deceased as an unnamed member of the community of ancestors is (p.19) commemorated and kept as a memento. Kenyon (in Kenyon and Tushingham 1953) was the first to propose that the plastered skulls from the Neolithic Near East (7200–6000 BC for the Levant) served to commemorate the life of a beloved male ancestor, although my more recent research (Bonogofsky 2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b) indicates that such skulls belonged as well to females and children (and thus not necessarily males or biological ancestors) and may have fulfilled multiple functions in ancient Near Eastern mortuary ritual, including their possible use as fertility or apotropaic devices (see also Wright 1988). Kenyon's ideas apparently originated in Melanesian analogs, which are themselves problematic as examples of ancestor worship (Bonogofsky 2001b; Bonogofsky and Graham this volume).

Conversely, Oakdale (2005) discusses how dead ancestors are forgotten among the Kayabi of Amazonian Brazil through Jawosi rituals in which the Kayabi are encouraged to view their own dead as enemies and thus “other” through imagery and by the use of trophy heads and the skulls of actual enemies. Through the rituals, the Kayabi meditate on the enemy dead, who is considered a participant in their social gathering, and whose head is metaphorically boiled into a porridge-like liquid. Later, the house where the beloved dead male lived and is buried is often burned down and a new one built (destruction of the house does not occur with deceased women and children), again to help remove the memory of the deceased from the community. Enemy crania were further used in boys' initiation ceremonies, in which the bones were broken and discarded and the teeth were strung onto necklaces.

The living are also encouraged to forget the beloved dead as individuals among the Ecuadorian Jivaro Achuar through funeral laments that focus on the decomposing face of the exposed male (females and children were perceived as easier to forget), thus allowing the man's appearance to fade from memory (Taylor 1993). In contrast, the facial features of Achuar enemies were preserved in the form of the shrunken head. The flesh of the face and head was removed from the decapitated member and preserved as a tsantsa, while the skull was discarded and tossed into the brush. In this context, the enemy was symbolically turned into a relative, was killed a second time, and was buried, mourned, and forgotten as one's own relative.

Disembodied Nasca heads also may have been devices used to facilitate ancestor veneration. Forgey (this volume), as noted above, addresses this question through DNA analysis in an effort to determine whether trophy heads derived from group members or enemy outsiders. The “ancestor question” is a persistent one plaguing not only the study of the ancient Andes and the ancient Near East but also the Maya world and prehistoric Britain (Whitley 2002). (p.20) The curation of the head reminded the living of the role of ancestors as lineage heads, symbols of land and resource rights, and spiritual providers, and also served as a reminder of the prowess of warriors in battle.

The various functions, then, are not mutually exclusive. Human heads may be used in multiple ways by a single cultural group or across a widespread region. The same applies to the Neolithic skulls deriving from males, females, and children, which have been excavated in isolation and from caches at numerous sites in the Middle East. The multiple contexts and diverse locations of the skulls and crania indicate that they may have functioned as mementos of the deceased, as apotropaic devices, as foundation deposits, as fertility objects, and as grave goods (Bonogofsky 2006a, 2006b), although some excavators and other discussants continue to interpret them as confirmation of ancestor worship (e.g., see Gedalyahu 2008: 1). Attention to depositional and stratigraphic context, including whether the skulls were hidden or placed on display, detailed bioarchaeological and biochemical analyses, and artifactual associations are key to unraveling the complex meanings embodied by the human head archaeologically and to identifying a particular use or meaning within a given context. Interpretation is greatly complicated, however, by the fact that archaeological signatures of the functions discussed above often overlap. Restricting our study of material culture to the identification of a single treatment, role, or function, or even age or sex category, may obscure critical phases of the life history of an object that are evident in use wear or may simplify its complex entanglements in social relations (see, e.g., Fletcher et al. 2008). Although I would maintain that studying the ways in which skulls functioned prehistorically is a valuable enterprise, pigeonholing objects only limits interpretive potential and therefore our understanding of past human societies, as I discuss later (in Bonogofsky and Graham this volume). As the section below demonstrates, in addition to their critical roles as symbols, objects of exchange, veneration, and memory, skulls represent an unparalleled source of bioarchaeological data.

The Bioarchaeology of the Skull

Twenty-first-century contextual analyses of human remains, including the chapters in this book, have their roots in the typological study of human crania, an approach championed by scientists such as Aleš Hrdlička and Georg K. Neumann (Cook 2006). For early physical anthropologists and through the mid-twentieth century, the answers to questions of the origins and diversity of the Native peoples of North America resided in the collection of skulls and the measurement of various morphological features. Although we have progressed far beyond attempts to identify racial types or to demonstrate a simple (p.21) and direct relationship between intelligence and the size of the brain case, the skull remains perhaps the most informative component of the human body to modern biological anthropologists. Not only is cranial morphology critical to the accurate estimation of age and sex but also the teeth (in addition to being indicators of health, hygiene, and nutrition) can be used as sources of tissue for biochemical and isotopic analyses (see Montgomery, Knüsel, and Tucker this volume) to help determine, for example, whether an individual was a local resident, and thus presumably an “insider,” or from a distant region, and thus possibly considered an “outsider.”

Today, bioarchaeologists and biological anthropologists routinely exploit biochemistry, in tandem with standard osteometric and dental methods, to reconstruct ancient life histories. DNA and stable isotope analyses are increasingly employed to address questions of biological distance, diet, and even region of origin (see Forgey this volume) and are often used to test hypotheses derived from other methods. In combination with contextual analysis and a consideration of the skull as a symbolically powerful object, biochemical and osteological methods are giving us ever more detailed views of ancient lives. Several chapters in this volume (e.g., Forgey; Montgomery, Knüsel, and Tucker; Stojanowski and Duncan) demonstrate the strengths of these approaches.

In the United States, the impetus to combine the strengths of biological anthropology in skeletal analysis and archaeology in the reconstruction of ancient lifeways came with the 1977 publication of an unassuming volume by Robert L. Blakely titled Biocultural Adaptation in Prehistoric America. This book marked the inception of an approach to human remains that integrated the methods and insights of biological anthropologists and archaeologists. In a series of short chapters, the authors laid the foundations for an interdisciplinary approach to questions of social organization, diet, disease, and demography (e.g., Buikstra 1977; Robbins 1977) that is now commonly termed “bioarchaeology” (Buikstra 2006; Sofaer 2006).

Today, bioarchaeologists—who are generally trained both in archaeological method and in osteology, paleopathology, and population genetics—engage the human skull in myriad ways, ranging from studies of skull deformation as an indicator of social or ethnic identity (Geller this volume; Lozada this volume; Sharapova and Razhev this volume) to the implications of the plastering of the skulls of men, women, and children in the Neolithic Near East, Eurasia, North America, and Melanesia (see, e.g., Bonogofsky and Graham this volume; Bonogofsky 2006c; Fletcher et al. 2008). By combining knowledge of human biology with the social, economic, and religious context provided by archaeology, bioarchaeologists conceive of the human body as both a biological (p.22) organism and a source of material culture (Sofaer 2006). The skull, with the wealth of information it provides on both the social person and the biological organism subject to various stressors, is thus an ideal subject of study.

Biological Stressors

Skeletal stress to the human head results in a number of manifestations, whether as metric variation (skeletal robustness, cranial shape) or as a process of cultural modification (cranial deformation, trephination), disease (cranial vault thickening, tuberculosis, dental caries), or violence and injury (depressed cranial fractures). Metric variation can be culturally or environ-mentally induced. One of the areas in which cultural context and osteology have established a most fruitful relationship is in the study of paleopathologies. The human head is a sensitive body part that expresses in skeletal form evidence of dietary stressors, violent injury, disease processes, physical activity, mechanical loading, congenital defects, and accident. In comparative studies of skeletal populations, cranial and dental differences have been observed between ethnic groups, men and women, adults and children, high- and low-status individuals (see, e.g., Geller this volume; Lozada this volume; Sharapova and Razhev this volume). Markers of health status are routinely sought in bioarchaeological studies of human remains (see, e.g., Cohen and Armelagos 1984; Cohen and Crane-Kramer 2007), often as proxies for resource access; two markers in particular (porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia) are evident on the cranium. Porotic hyperostosis is expressed as lesions of the surface of the cranial vault, attributable to anemia in childhood that usually occurs on the frontal and parietals. This iron deficiency can be due to inherited anemias, such as thalassemia and sickle-cell anemia, or to a lack of absorbed iron from dietary sources (Stuart-Macadam 1991, 1992). Cribra orbitalia, which is a form of porotic hyperostosis, manifests itself in the orbital roof. Although iron deficiencies are usually considered to be the cause of cribra orbitalia, heavy parasite loads, infectious disease, and scurvy may also be implicated (Blom et al. 2005; Cook 2007; Verano 1997, 1998).

Walker (1986) found that a major contributor of childhood porotic hyperostosis in the Channel Island area of California could be a lack of sanitation with respect to water resources and garbage disposal, as well as inadvertent exposure to parasites through the consumption of marine life. These two factors would increase infection and lower the amount of iron absorbed by the body. Porotic hyperostosis began to appear during the Neolithic period and is thus usually attributed to the introduction of agriculture and a shift in diet to less meat and more foods high in carbohydrates. Alternatively, porotic (p.23) hyperostosis may have appeared in the Neolithic, not because of resulting changes in diet per se but because population density increased, leading to greater exposure to pathogens (Stuart-Macadam 1991). Kent 1986 likewise found that diet mattered very little for increased porotic hyperostosis in the prehistoric Anasazi of the American Southwest. Rather, an increase in viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases resulting from sedentism and crowding contributed to this expression of iron-deficiency anemia.

Porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia can also be caused by artificial skull deformation (see Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998: 349; Ortner and Putschar 1985). Meiklejohn and colleagues (1992) note that porotic hyperostosis is often found in crania artificially deformed in vivo from the proto-Neolithic and Neolithic Near East. More specifically, Bennike and Alexandersen (2007: 148) find that pitting reflects “processes of high vascularization attributable to growth or stress” and that mechanical loading (artificial skull deformation) may be a more plausible explanation than parasitism. They support their theory “by the fact that pitting is also seen in [southern Scandinavian] Neolithic skulls (often with a particular thickness), whereas the appearance of cribra orbitalia is almost nonexistent in any of the Mesolithic/ Early Neolithic skulls” (Bennike and Alexandersen 2007: 148).

Evidence of skeletal stress has been seen as both a positive and a negative reaction to the environment. For example, most researchers agree that higher frequencies of skeletal lesions, such as evidence of porotic hyperostosis, indicate a decrease in health (Goodman 1993), yet Wood and colleagues (1992) and Cook 2007 take exception to this conclusion and propose that higher frequencies of skeletal lesions observed in early agricultural societies could be interpreted as a hardiness to survive illness and stress: in other words, “the pathological skeleton represents a survivor” (Cook 2007: 15). Skeletal evidence of stress may complement the findings of zooarchaeologists and paleoethnobotanists, who can identify potential nutritional deficiencies and differences in access to highly valued food items on the basis of faunal and plant remains. Even when these materials are unavailable, the quantity and quality of grave goods, the grave structure, and the location and disposition of the body provide broader contexts in which to consider the skeletal evidence (see, e.g., Sharapova and Razhev this volume).

Another disease related to diet is scurvy, which results from insufficient vitamin C and may produce black staining of the roots of the teeth because of hematomas, as was found among Dutch whalers buried at Spitsbergen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Maat 2004). Scurvy may also present in the form of porotic and proliferative endo- and ectocranial lesions (p.24) (Brickley and Ives 2006; Mays 2008), especially among children (Ortner et al. 2001; Ortner et al. 1999). Other ailments particular to children are occipital ulcers and infections that result from cradleboarding (Holliday 1993).

In addition to its potential to express dietary deficiencies, the skull as a neurological and cognitive center is subject to violent injuries that may take several forms, including fractures and projectile point lesions. These types of trauma have been used by bioarchaeologists to gauge levels of interpersonal violence through time, between males and females, and between different ethnic or social groups. Walker (1989), for example, found significant differences in the prevalence of cranial fractures between two California populations, one of which probably experienced greater competition over resources. He also observed increasing numbers of injuries through time, suggesting that population growth and environmental instability exacerbated the situation. More than half of the injuries were on the frontal, with the left side somewhat more affected than the right side. This injury pattern indicates that the person faced a right-handed attacker, in which more middle-aged men were injured than any other age/sex category. In a study of three Peruvian populations, Tung (2007) identified an increased prevalence of cranial trauma during periods of imperial Wari rule; she also found that men and women displayed distinct patterns of head injuries, suggesting that they experienced violence in very different ways. A study from the North American Southwest also showed sex-based differences in cranial trauma (Martin 1997). Using both skeletal and archaeological evidence, Martin argued that women with multiple fractures and atypical treatment at death (i.e., burial in a prone or sprawled position) belonged to a subclass of the population that routinely endured physical abuse.

The shape of the skull, affected by artificial vault deformation (see Geller this volume; Lozada this volume; Sharapova and Razhev this volume; also see Anton 1989 for resulting facial deformation), may also be determined by additional biocultural factors such as gene flow as well as masticatory function, which influence cranial vault shortening and craniofacial morphology (Larsen 1995). There was a widespread trend toward cranial vault shortening in earlier populations, to include those in the Middle East, because of masticatory, dietary, and technological changes, especially those associated with the shift from gathering to farming and the consumption of softer foods. For example, Nubian Mesolithic foragers ca. 12,000 BP and early agriculturalists 3400–1200 BC have flat and elongated vaults with protruding supraorbital tori and occipitals, while later intensive agriculturalists AD 1500 have rounded vaults with small and more posteriorly placed faces and masticatory muscle attachment sites (Larsen 1997).

Age also influences craniofacial morphology. Craniofacial robusticity in (p.25) older adult females increases with age to mimic characteristics associated with adult males. This change may be related in part to postmenopausal changes taking place in females. Cranial width increases slightly in middle-aged women and widens significantly in the vaults of old men, possibly as a result of masticatory function (Sjøvold 1995). Masticatory, dietary, and technological influences on the shape of the skull indicate that skull shape can be part of individual, not necessarily population, variation (Larsen 1997). Although brachycrania, producing short skulls, was rare among Neolithic populations in general, both brachycrania and dolichocrania, which produced elongated skulls, occurred together in the Levant as well as in the entire area of the Near East during the Early Neolithic period. According to anthropologist Gottfried Kurth's 1957 field notes from Jericho, the majority of “low stature” skulls were dolichocranic, with elongated cranial vaults and high and narrow faces. Some of these skulls, however, including the shorter, rounder skulls, had been modified in vivo, through the process of culturally induced artificial cranial deformation (see Fletcher et al. 2008; Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl 1981).

Various congenital defects may be identified on the basis of cranial remains, such as craniosynostosis (craniostenosis), that is, the premature closure of cranial sutures, a defect with a hereditary component that may present in several different forms, depending on which sutures are involved (Aufderheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998: 52–54; Kutterer and Alt 2008; Müller et al. 2008). This genetic anomaly, which subsequently alters the shape of the skull, is referenced by Pamela Geller (this volume) to protest the application of the term deformation to both craniostenosis and intentional in vivo cranial modification performed for cultural reasons, as, for example, among the Maya. However, the ramifications for both are far-reaching, as demonstrated in a study of 130 Peruvian culturally altered crania examined by Anton (1989: 264), who found that “facial deformation is induced by vault deformation.” Other defects, detectable through craniometrics, include hydrocephaly, which results from an accumulation of cerebral spinal fluid. Examination by Richards and Anton (1991) of a partial child's skeleton from central California, dating to the Middle Period (ca. 2500 BC–AD 500), revealed a unique craniofacial configuration and malformed postcrania as a result of this central nervous system disorder.

Dental pathologies also serve as indicators of health, social status, heredity, and physical activity. Caries and dental attrition, the latter caused by a coarse diet, are both prevalent in prehistoric skeletal samples. Dental caries is an age-progressive disease process in which organic acids ferment dietary carbohydrates to demineralize exposed tooth enamel and underlying dentin (Larsen et al. 1991). The disease process is enhanced the longer teeth are exposed to an (p.26) oral environment in which bacteria and dental plaque are present and a high-carbohydrate diet is consumed.

An increase in dental caries in the New World is associated with an increase in the consumption of agricultural foods such as maize (Larsen et al. 1991). A diet high in carbohydrates like that associated with agriculture is key in the advance of dental caries. However, nonagricultural foods such as honey and sweet, sticky fruit such as dates and figs also contribute to dental caries (Larsen 1995). Larsen (1983) correlated the incidence of dental caries on the prehistoric Georgia coast in North America with diet, sex, and age to find that dental caries increased with the shift to agriculture and occurred more frequently in women than in men. This finding was echoed by Larsen and colleagues (2007) for northern Florida and upland Georgia, although adult males in central and southern Florida tended to have more caries than adult females did. Dental caries may have affected more women in coastal and upland Georgia and northern Florida because of their increased access to starchy foods such as maize (compared to men, who consumed more meat protein) and their slightly longer life exposure to the physical environment (Larsen 1983; Larsen et al. 1991; Larsen et al. 2007). However, stable isotope signatures do not fully support dietary differences as an explanation for higher caries rates in men in central and southern Florida (Larsen et al. 2007).

On the north coast of Rota, Mariana Islands, Hanson (1988) found a high rate of dental caries in deciduous teeth, while the rate of caries in adult teeth was very low. This decreased incidence was associated with the betel nut chewed by adults, as the tannins therein change the oral chemistry to inhibit cariogenic activity. Kurth and Röhrer-Ertl (1981: 441) noted extremely low rates of dental caries in the Neolithic Near Eastern population at Jericho, with only one occurrence. However, I documented caries in two deciduous molars belonging to a subadult during study of two crania recovered from a skull cache of six from this same site (Bonogofsky 1999; see Kenyon 1981: pl. VIIIa). Caries rates increased in adults in prehistoric South Asia with the introduction of agriculture although women had higher caries rates than men did (Lukacs 1996). Conversely, the teeth of young boys at Gulbarga, Karnataka, had higher rates of dental caries than did the deciduous teeth of girls (Reddy 1980). These cultural distinctions in dental health during the life span of the individual thus involve questions of age, sex, and gender as well as social status.

Ancient Near Eastern inhabitants of the early Neolithic settlement of ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan, who consumed abrasive foods high in carbohydrates, were subject to periods of nutritional stress and used their teeth as tools, as shown by Sarie (1995b) in a review of dental health. The inhabitants’ diet consisted of both wild and domesticated plants and animals, which played a role in (p.27) the dental wear, antemortem tooth loss, and masticatory problems. Seasonal starvation is evidenced in severe cases of enamel hypoplasia (developmental defects that represent physiological stress events) and high child mortality rates. Moreover, Sarie (1995a, 1995b) proposed that tuberculosis could have been a factor as well, finding that even though the inhabitants' diet became more varied, environmental stress was more severe (see Sharapova and Razhev this volume for hypoplasia among the Sargat in Eurasia). He further traced patterns of microstriation and dental calculus to understand mandibular function and diet patterns. Mandibles exhibited degenerative changes in the epicondyle, representing an association of arthritis with the utilization of the front teeth as tools. Degeneration of the glenoid fossa was associated with alveolar resorption and recession, severe front tooth attrition, missing teeth, and a strong muscle insertion on the ascending ramus and gonial angle. Sarie concluded that the inhabitants of ‘Ain Ghazal had consumed hard, abrasive food and used their teeth as tools to cut thread and grasp basketry materials, resulting in severe tooth wear. In effect, most of the adults at ‘Ain Ghazal suffered from periodontal disease, with one quarter suffering from antemortem tooth loss, possibly as a result of an agricultural diet processed using a stone pestle and mortar. Most of the wear on the anterior dentition resulted in the use of the teeth for grasping basketry material, based on the presence of striation lines and phytoliths and pollen grains of reeds and rushes in the dental calculus. An affliction of tuberculosis and the use of teeth in basket making may explain the periodontal inflammation and maxillary disease found in one female individual (Sarie 1995a; see Molnar 1972 for additional extramasticatory functions that produce grooves or faceting of teeth).

In a study of the prevalence of hypoplasias in two Alaskan populations, Keenleyside (1998) found that North Alaskan Eskimos exhibited significantly higher rates than Aleuts, in part because of differences in subsistence. Differences in dental wear patterns between males and females may indicate that tasks were divided along sex lines (Larsen 1997: 259–260). Excess wear on the labial surfaces of teeth can indicate use of labrets. Wear patterns, when combined with archaeological evidence for labrets from funerary contexts, can reveal patterns in male and female ornamentation and social signaling. For example, dental evidence of abraded canines indicates that males wore paired lateral labrets in Chile (Torres-Rouff 2003), while on the Northwest Coast free women used labrets to signal high status (Ames 1994: 221).

This short discussion of paleopathologies that produce changes in the teeth and bones of the skull is by no means exhaustive, but it does provide some indication of the breadth of information available on prehistoric health status that can be obtained from the skull. One objective of this volume is to (p.28) demonstrate the sorts of insights into the past that an integrated approach to archaeological and osteological data can generate. Even when skeletal evidence is limited to the skull, identification of trauma and disease processes, as discussed above, provide critical data on research topics as diverse as social inequalities, changes in subsistence, social relations, and violence.

Joanna Sofaer, in The Body as Material Culture (2006), argues for greater articulation of social theory with studies of the human skeleton. In particular, she advocates an approach that emphasizes the study of the living body through the skeleton. Sofaer sees the body as the locus of biology, materiality, and representation and therefore full of interpretive potential. The skull, of all human body parts, presents the greatest prospects for the integration of the biological, physical, and material with the social, political, and representational. The chapters in this book examine the living body (through deformation of the skull), processes that convert the body from one state to another (decapitation), and postmortem actions (decoration) that, in some cases, turn the skull (or the body as a whole) into an agent of material culture (e.g., Andrushko this volume; Bonogofsky and Graham this volume; ƠDonnabhain this volume). In each case, the skull is viewed as both a biological object and an object (or subject) vested with social, symbolic, or ideological meaning. The materiality of the skull permits its premortem manipulation and its deployment postmortem in a variety of ways. While bioarchaeology has perhaps not yet achieved the articulation of the physical with the social that Sofaer desires, this volume demonstrates that the study of the skull has the potential to bridge the gap between social theory and skeletal biology.

Contributions to This Volume

Chapters in this volume are organized into two parts—those that take a primarily symbolic or contextual approach to the human head and those that deal with the human skull bioarchaeologically or biochemically. Regardless of the approach that is taken, the authors all aim to address the broad question of whose heads and skulls were disembodied, decorated, deformed, or otherwise modified and/or curated and why, paying close attention to the age and sex of the individuals under study, noting that at times the deceased may be symbolically transformed to transcend one specific social category such as “ancestor” or “enemy.”

Symbolic and Contextual Approaches

Heather Bonney and Margaret Clegg review ethnographic reports and other lines of evidence for the modification of skulls from the Torres Strait Islands, (p.29) to determine whether one can differentiate the decorated skull of a relative from a head collected as a trophy. Ethnographic accounts of mortuary and headhunting practices, which disappeared completely from the islands during the conversion to Christianity beginning in 1871, included skulls of relatives naturally defleshed using termite mounds, as well as heads of men, women, and children severed from their bodies using bamboo knives. Heads of relatives (unspecified as to male or female) were kept as memorials and used in divination. However, heads from neighboring islanders within the Torres Strait Islands were collected during raids as trophies and status symbols, then naturally or manually defleshed and used as objects of trade between the islands.

The authors determined that skulls reported as relatives and trophies were both painted and decorated; thus, this particular criterion cannot be used to help determine from which category the skulls derived. In addition, their study of skulls from this region found no evidence for decapitation on any of the crania or mandibles (the vertebrae were not present). They did, however, find evidence of termite activity—supporting reports of termites used as natural defleshers. These types of studies are needed to help independently substantiate such cultural practices and thus move forward our understanding of whose skulls were selected and curated, as well as how and why.

In a chapter on the practice of skull modeling that combines contextual and bioarchaeological approaches, Jeffrey Graham and I review twentieth-century ethnographic evidence for all aspects of head acquisition and decoration, as well as the demographic profiles of the deceased and the uses of skulls in sorcery and divination in Melanesia. We note that perceived attractiveness and fecundity in youthful male and female individuals were determining factors in the selection of a deceased individual for special treatment of the skull. In addition, we provide an example of how slain enemies, and thus “outsiders,” could be considered ancestors and thus potentially become “insiders” by contributing symbolically to the proliferation and strength of the community because of the deceased's prowess in life. Further, we observe that Kathleen Kenyon, whose work at Jericho is often cited as the example par excellence of the skull as an object of ancestor worship, used vague Melanesian analogs as the source of her interpretations of Neolithic skulls of the Near East. Strengthening our argument for the consideration of women and children in studies of skulls in archaeological and museum collections, Graham and I present a case study in nondestructive aging methods using a skull from the Sepik River region of New Guinea. We show how radiography and modern forensic methods can be applied to successfully estimate age at death from plastered or overmodeled skulls, as well as in cases when postcrania are absent and (p.30) cranial remains are fragmentary. The Sepik River skull, determined to be that of a child between three and four years old, is highly unlikely to be that of a venerated ancestor of archaeological myth. This evidence provides a comparative example for recent work in the Neolithic Near East, North America, and Eurasia.

Frédérique Valentin and Noémie Rolland make a compelling case for the changing motivation behind the collection and decoration of skulls deriving from ancestors and enemies in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia following European contact in the eighteenth century. Based on their review of documents, illustrations, and artifacts, they determine that skulls—once curated for their soul essence after decomposition of the bodies of relatives and chiefs and worn as trophies by victorious warriors—became “made to order” curios for an expanding European market. These skulls, collected almost exclusively from the island of Nuku Hiva by nineteenth-century European explorers and mariners and described as deriving from war enemies caught outside the community, also have archaeological referents recovered from domestic as well as burial sites. This work is central to the question of whose skulls were collected and why and help to inform our understanding of past cultural practices.

In his chapter on medieval Ireland, Barra ƠDonnabhain integrates three lines of evidence—archaeology, literature, and iconography—to show that the severing of heads and their collection and public display in centers of elite social and political power served to negotiate power and difference between competing groups beginning as early as the seventh century AD. He argues that decapitation was used to symbolically transform insiders, as members of a group, into social outsiders through the removal and denigration of their heads and other body parts. This concept expanded with the rise of Christianity and the notion of purgatory, denying privileged status to both the body and the soul of the social outcast.

Bioarchaeological and Biochemical Approaches

Janet Montgomery, Christopher Knüsel, and Katie Tucker analyze the remains of individuals from a Roman period cemetery (late second to early fourth centuries AD) in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, primarily comprising young to middle-aged adult males who exhibited taller than average stature for the population, as well as evidence for decapitation in forty-eight out of eighty cases (60 percent). The authors investigate the origins of six of the male adults buried at 1–3 Driffield Terrace, York (late second and early third centuries AD). Four of these six men had been decapitated, and one of the four was in leg irons. The authors’ analyses of lead, strontium, and oxygen isotopes, used (p.31) to explore whether these men were local or nonlocal residents, determined that the men's origins reflected the increased cosmopolitan nature of the Roman Empire; they came from mixed locations, nearby as well as very far away. Moreover, contrary to expectations that these men were social outcasts, the historical context in which these men lived indicates that they were likely Roman soldiers of higher social status, based on their burial in a prime location that was along the main approach road and on a promontory, as well as their form of death by decapitation (for the four who had been decapitated). The authors' contribution highlights the far-reaching scope of the Roman Empire and the realization that higher-status individuals who were part of this empire were allowed to choose decapitation as a more honorable form of punishment.

In a contribution from the Spanish colonial period of the southeastern United States, Christopher Stojanowski and William Duncan tackle a human calvaria attributed to a Franciscan friar killed during a rebellion by the local Guale population in the late 1500s. Using a large comparative database of cranial measurements from sites in Spain and the United States, they attempt to determine the population affinity of the individual represented by the calvaria, concluding that the remains are Iberian or even Spanish in affiliation, possibly that of the beheaded sixteenth-century priest, and thus a member of the Franciscan Order. In contrast to early-twentieth-century practices in which investigators assigned skulls to broad racial categories of “European,” “African,” or “Native American,” Stojanowski and Duncan construct a population history of the region in order to consider all likely possibilities. They find cranial data sets comparable in both temporal and spatial terms, using, for example, sets representing late medieval Spanish and Basque populations, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African-Americans, and seventeenth-century Euro-Americans. Instead of collapsing populations into large regional groups, this method accounts for short-term secular changes in human cranial morphology within a single population and serves as a guide for future studies.

In a contribution from an area little known to Euro-American readers, Svetlana Sharapova and Dmitry Razhev discuss the widespread practice of skull deformation among peoples of the Iron Age Sargat culture (500 BC– AD 300) living north and east of the Black and Caspian seas. Archaeological investigation of the Sargat culture has yielded numerous kurgans (burial mounds) containing the remains of males, females, and juveniles, many of whom display evidence of intentional cranial deformation. Measuring multiple cranial indices, Sharapova and Razhev interpret deformation as evidence of an emerging marker of social status. They combine the skeletal analysis with careful consideration of the context and content of each individual grave. This bioarchaeological study enables them to distinguish between sedentary (p.32) peoples, who are generally thought to have constituted the local ancestral, or substratum, population, and those who pursued a nomadic lifeway on horseback as descendants of a southern aristocracy and thus belonged to the superstratum.

Maria Lozada presents a compelling case for the use of the human head as an ethnic and socioeconomic group marker in her discussion of the pre-Inca Chiribaya from southern Peru (AD 700–1359). She notes that premortem cranial modification was only one of a number of distinct cultural practices that served to reinforce and symbolize clear social and cultural differences between Chiribaya agriculturalists and fishermen. Lozada concludes that this form of group identity became widespread among the Chiribaya in response to internal sociopolitical and economic stress during the time of an encroaching colonialist state. Context is key to this nuanced interpretation of a fascinating body of evidence.

Pamela Geller draws upon skeletal remains, architectural contexts, associated artifacts, iconography, and ethnohistories to discuss Maya premortem cranial modification from northwestern Belize. Using “a life course approach informed by social theories about identity,” she argues that individual heads may have been shaped in infancy to initiate a “process of becoming,” perhaps indicating the eldest offspring or an intended occupation, in a sense marking the individual from infancy to ancestorhood. This Maya practice, archaeologically attested as early as the Middle Preclassic period (ca. 1200 BC), was banned after European conquest; as a result, contemporary Maya no longer mold the heads of infants. Geller's archaeological sample, which focuses on twenty-five crania that could be assessed for modification dating to the Classic period (AD 250–900) and deriving from commoner and noble classes from various sites, included both males and females—although male crania were intentionally altered more often—thus neither sex nor socioeconomic status appeared to be the impetus behind intentional cranial shaping. Geller concludes that the motivation behind this ancient practice—why intentionally mold the head of a living infant—remains unknown.

Valerie Andrushko provides a detailed description of a Wari trophy head that was fashioned for display in the Wari hinterland of Peru (AD 600–1000) during a period of impending imperial collapse. The head of a younger middle-aged male was scalped and defleshed, with nose and brain removed. Holes were punched into the skull, which was then notably decorated with a bone insert, and lifelike artificial teeth were added to replace missing dentition. Andrushko's work, heavily dependent on osteological evidence and comparative trophy heads from the Wari heartland as well as demographic data, (p.33) trauma analysis, burial context, and material culture, illustrates the effort and care taken to modify human heads. Andrushko makes a strong case for the ritual importance of these heads and their use as symbols of imperial authority. Further research, such as the planned use of isotopic analysis, may help determine whether, like the trophy heads from the Wari imperial center, this trophy head from Cuzco was taken from nonlocals, which may in turn shed light on whether this head derived from an ancestor or an enemy.

Providing a roadmap for future research, Kathleen Forgey employs biochemical analysis of ancient DNA on Nasca trophy heads from the Early Nasca phases (AD 1–450) of the Nasca culture (AD 1–750), to determine biological relatedness. Using samples from trophy heads and from individuals recovered from cemetery contexts in three Peruvian valleys, Forgey was able to identify all five Amerindian haplogroups, suggesting that Nasca populations were highly diverse genetically. Further, her analysis shows that the Nazca Valley trophy heads she analyzed originated from within the Nazca Valley population. This evidence supports the assertion that, at least in the early years of trophy head use, heads may have been the curated remains of ancestors—certain individuals who were selected for special treatment after death. Forgey's study has implications for other regions of the world where archaeologists are attempting to determine whether human remains belong to local populations or to those of outsiders. Studies of ancient DNA may resolve some of the most persistent and perplexing questions in the discipline, and Forgey's important chapter highlights that potential.

Conclusions and Prospects

Archaeologists are approaching the problems presented by the ancient body and body parts through bioarchaeology and biochemical analyses, as well as through symbolic, contextual, and interpretive approaches. As the chapters in this volume demonstrate, both ways of reconstructing the past lead to ever more detailed and nuanced reconstructions of ancient lives—even those aspects of past lives formerly considered too remote, technical, or cognitive to consider. The examples presented in this volume serve as guides for dealing with some of the most contentious issues in archaeology today, such as the role of ancestors and enemies in the past; the identification of insiders and outsiders; and the ways in which elites signal their social distinctiveness and emerging power. Body parts, and human heads and skulls in particular, function as material indicators of ethnicity and status, are imbued with the power to protect and multiply, and are used to degrade, objectify, or control.

(p.34) The Archaeology of Ancestors

The role of ancestors in the past—that is, as biological, lineal antecedents selected for special postmortem treatment—has received increased attention in the past decade (Whitley 2002). Biochemical approaches to this question, which use ancient DNA to determine whether an individual was a group member or an outsider, as well as whether male or female, provide new lines of evidence for dealing with this often-intractable question. The issue of ancestors can also be dealt with through the skull as material culture, as when skulls from Oceania are used for the purpose of legitimization or to emphasize descent from specific individuals or lineages (see Valentin and Rolland this volume; Stodder 2011). Additional comprehensive analyses focused on premortem treatments such as intentional cranial deformation and postmortem selections of skulls for curation and decoration—like those analyses I performed (e.g., Bonogofsky 2001b, 2005b; Bonogofsky and Malhi 2000) for the Levant and Anatolia, which combined personal examinations, photographs, x-rays, CT scans, and DNA analysis with archaeological context—will more fully address whose skulls were selected for special treatment and why. Future studies of skulls also will help archaeologists to identify the ways in which the remains of lineal ancestors functioned prehistorically. Perhaps such tangible forms of evidence will discourage further use of the term ancestors to explain everything from the presence of standing stones to the collection, modification, and decoration of the skulls of men, women, and children.

The Archaeology of Enemies

The study of the human head and skull can reveal the ways in which humans created cultural objects they could manipulate, degrade, or even honor. The disembodied head thus becomes a marker of the ability of the individual, group, state, or empire to control both the body and the spirit (ƠDonnabhain this volume). Such heads represent rights to property and resources, representations of prowess and success in battle, or loci of spiritual power with which to manipulate or forget the dead. As a material manifestation—tangible evidence of rights, abilities, and past events—the “trophy” head is imbued with culture-specific significance. Attention to the context of the archaeological remains of skulls, to documentary and iconographic evidence, and even to subsistence data and site patterning gives us great interpretive possibilities, which I hope that future research will pursue (Bonogofsky 2001b).

The Archaeology of Emerging Elites

The rise of elites and the ways in which elites reinforce their authority are also issues having worldwide archaeological implications. In Eurasia, skull (p.35) deformation served to mark out more recently arrived groups as privileged and distinct (Sharapova and Razhev this volume), while in South America, communities of occupational specialists used head imagery as a visual cue to ethnicity (Lozada this volume). Emerging chiefs among Iron Age Celts used the concept of headhunting as a form of symbolic capital to establish and consolidate power, harnessing the power of the human head in ritual and iconography (Armit 2006). Attention to the head within the context of emerging elite authority—expressed in deformation, ornamentation, and treatment after death—will help to illustrate the ways in which manipulation of the living bodies of elites and control of their material remains facilitated acquisition of social, political, and economic power.


In sum, the human skull represents a powerful symbol—one that is altered during life or death to signal ethnicity, ancestorhood, personal prowess, or political authority. As a highly salient object of material culture, the head is invested with meaning that changes depending on context—those political, social, and economic conditions that require an object with which to negotiate, manipulate, and control. Ethnographic evidence suggests that skulls have complex life histories as dynamic ritual objects, while iconography and historical documents indicate that skulls have critical roles as expressions of the power of emerging elites.

As a biological object subject to violence, disease processes, nutrient availability, cultural practices, and the vagaries of daily life, the skull is one of the most informative parts of the human body. Individual teeth and cranial bones can reveal infection, resource stress, congenital defects, and patterns in human activity. By integrating our study of the skull, employing all of the available archaeological, conceptual, and physical evidence and techniques, our reconstructions of the human past will become more complete, allowing us to better understand what life was like for individuals of both sexes and all ages and statuses—even for those most neglected in life and forgotten in death.

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