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Game of Thrones Osteology: A Mormont Skull-Cup

19 Oct

Ever since the recent finale of season seven of the television series Game of Thrones (1), I’ve been revisiting the earlier episodes in order to remind myself of its intricate and myriad story-lines, alongside its cast of thousands of characters.  Sometimes this can be a bit of a headache and a puzzle watching an episode, trying to tease out the relationships, experiences and personal histories of the characters before the scene ends and you are whizzed off elsewhere around Westeros (or the Dothraki Plain).  This blog post may be about to do the same topic-wise, so prepare yourself!

New Lands, Old Fears

But Game of Thrones also offers a huge scope to visit different scenarios, locations and approaches, many of which are inspired from historical examples, such as the political intrigue of the War of the Roses (2.) in late medieval England and those of Imperial Rome.  One of more important settings is the The Wall, a huge ice wall construction built thousands of years before the present setting of the series to separate the wild north from the kingdoms of the south.  This structure is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, which separated Roman-ruled Britannia to the more northern lands ruled by associated tribes of the Ancient Britons and Picts.  In the television series though the northern lands are where ‘Wildings’ roam freely, loose tribes who live lifestyles akin to hunter-gatherers.  It is also a place where rumours of the return of ‘White Walkers’ abound, human-like creatures said to be able to bring back the dead as animated revenants to haunt and slaughter the living.

Illustration of the Jewish mythological malicious spirit known as Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) in his Book of Job as it appeared in Die Bucher Der Bibel. The dybbuk is the dislocated soul of a dead person which goes on to possess another individual until it has accomplished its goal. Image from Wikipedia.

Before I get ahead of myself, the use of revenants in the Game of Thrones universe taps into a reoccurring and general unease in human cultures of the dead ‘coming’ back to life.  Obvious parallels can be found and cited in the historical record from medieval Europe, particularly from Norway and England, but other cultural and religious examples include Chinese Jiangshi (‘hopping zombie’), the Jewish Dybbuk (a malicious possessing spirit), and the Malaysian and Indonesian Pocong (ghost of the soul of the deceased individual).  The idea of the vampire, made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel of 1897 but present in many European traditions in one form or another in previous centuries, also fits this category.  It would be fair to say that a fundamental feature of these concepts is the unease surrounding the death in general and the transition undertaken by the body as it undergoes the processes of decomposition.

The Old Bear

During one of the recent episode re-watches I came across the breakdown of the Night’s Watch, the politically unaffiliated band of brothers who guard the Wall against northern incursions and attacks.  Safe from the internal politics of the Seven Kingdoms that make up Westeros, the Night’s Watch relies on volunteers or prisoners to help man the crumbling watch forts and man the walkways high atop the Wall.  Unfortunately the members can prove to be a traitorous lot at times, particularly in times of hardship, de-funding and general building dilapidation as the kingdoms to south war among themselves.

The character I want to focus on briefly here is the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (the Old Bear), an elderly individual who holds top spot in the Night’s Watch and tries to provide steady leadership during trying times.  In season three, after an incursion into the frozen north ends badly following a somewhat terrifying encounter with the white walkers, the remaining men try to muster at a barely-defended longhouse (Craster’s Keep) before making for the safety of the Wall.  Before this happens though trouble breaks out and ends in outright treason among a portion of the broken and bloodied men.  The Lord Commander himself meets a bloody end at the hand of one of the mutineer’s blades and season three draws to a dramatic close.

The Lord Commander, though dead, still manages to make an appearance in season four. . .

Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, of the Night’s Watch, in better days at the Wall in Game of Thrones. Image credit: Game of Thrones Wiki.

. . . Alas not as a revenant, but as an inverted skull-cup!

In one of the early episodes to season four (it’s been too long since I saw it but I presume either episode one or two), we cut to one of the mutineers drinking wine out of the now defleshed skull of the former Lord Commander Mormont.  I have to say, the skull-cup must have been well-plugged of any canals and foramen, let alone the magnum foramen!

If you are an adult check out the video below and see if you can tell, from an osteological standpoint, what the mutineer did incorrectly whilst handling a human skull (minus the drinking of a cold vintage from it)?  Please note that the video contains strong language, sexual violence, and nudity.

If you had said grabbing the skull by the orbits (eye sockets), you would be quite correct!

Never grab a skull by the orbits or any other hole presented, as you run the risk of damaging and breaking the delicate facial bones by doing so.  Particularly at risk are the bones that help form the orbits and nasal aperture (nose hole), such as the lacrimals, nasals, zygomatics and sphenoid skeletal elements.  There is also a bit of a give away that this is either a plastic model or cast, as in the first shot of the skull you can clearly see the shallow depth of the anterior nasal aperture.  Apart from that though the model/cast looks quite good, relatively speaking.

A Mormont Skullduggery 

There is of course another oddity here – why go to the hard effort of cutting off the calotte (skull cap) and use the base of the neurocranium (brain case part of the skull) and splanchocranium (facial part of the skull) as the drinking vessel, instead of using the calvaria (the skull without the facial bones or lower jaw)?  Not only do you have the huge foramen magnum to plug, but also all of the intricate canals and foramen of the sphenoid bone, alongside the nasal aperture and orbits to prevent leakage.

It is, of course, for the shock factor and not for the practicality of drinking wine out of a skull.  This is Game of Thrones after all.  Still, it is impressive to see and one can imagine the (theoretical) hard work that has gone into plugging the anatomical gaps to make the butchered skull into a drinking vessel!

From Lord Commander to cup, the sorry fate of Jeor Mormont. Image courtesy of Youtube and HBO.

This thrilling north of the Wall strand in series three and four also reminded me of a few real-life archaeological parallels; from the Upper Palaeolithic post-mortem skull modification at Gough’s Cave, to the medieval treatment and disposal of the dead at Wharram Percy.  So without further ado, let us take a look at the archaeological evidence and see what the individuals at Gough’s Cave did differently to the mutineers at Craster’s Keep.

Upper Palaeolithic Head Scratcher: Gough’s Cave

At the Upper Palaeolithic location of Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England, evidence for the post-mortem butchery and processing of human remains is present in the skeletal material recorded and excavated from the archaeolological site.  The Magdalenian-period site dates to around 14,700 cal Before Present and is one of the few British Upper Palaeolithic archaeological sites to feature human skeletal remains at all.  It is also the only site in the British Isles to feature the presence of directly-dated skull-cups (N=3), as documented in the two images below for location of butchery marks and the skull-cups themselves (Bello et al. 2017: 1).

Though Gough’s Cave is not the only Magdalenian culture to feature human skull-cups, as the French sites of Le Placard and Isturitz also have evidence for the post-mortem production of skull-cups, it is unique to feature both the production of skull-cups and the evidence for cannibalism together at one site.  I’ve previously wrote a blog entry regarding the osteological and archaeological evidence for post-mortem manipulation of the bones, but it is worth just briefly going through it again here.

A selection of the skull elements from at least three individuals found at Gough’s Cave. Note the processed remains. Image credit: Natural History Museum.

The first hint that the skeletal remains were likely butchered was the find location and treatment of the skeletal elements.  The remains of at least five individuals, including children, adolescents and adults, were co-mingled with butchered animal remains.  The remains showed distinctive evidence for cut-marks and chopping, but more commonly for slicing and scraping (Stringer, et al 2011: 19).  In total three skull-cups were identified from individuals of differing ages and all butchery marks were identified as ectocranial (outside of skull) in nature.

The archaeologists were able to identify the five-step method for producing the skull-cups as the following:

  1. The head was detached from the body shortly after death, cuts at the base of the skull and cervical vertebrae indicate this.
  2. The mandible (lower jawbone) was then removed, with evidence of percussion fractures on the teeth of both the mandible and maxilla (lower and upper jaws), where present.
  3. The major muscles of the skull were carefully removed, along with the soft facial tissues and organs.
  4. Cut marks then indicate scalping took place.
  5. Finally the facial and base of the cranium were carefully struck off and the edges chipped to provide smoother surfaces (Bello et al. 2011).

The main locations of reshaping of the human crania from Gough’s Cave IMage credit: Figure 8 in Bello et al. 2011.

Once created it appears that the skull-cups were used as liquid vessels rather than for anything else, although the reason for their production remains unknown.  This function is similar to the fate of Lord Commander’s skull in the Game of Thrones television series, though we cannot know the reasons that drove the individuals who created the Gough’s Cave skull-cups in the first place.  The possibility of funerary ritual could be floated, but this would be speculation.  What is clear is that these skull-cups demanded careful preparation and processing to minimise damage.  The 2011 PLoS ONE article by Bello et al., referenced in the bibliography below, is well worth a read for the full archaeological and osteological context.

Medieval Wonders: Wharram Percy

In more recent research on a skeletal assemblage from the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, dating to the 11th to 13th century AD, indicate a number of peri-mortem and post-mortem practices being carried out in distinct phases (Mays et al. 2017).

A study on the disarticulated assemblage of human skeletal remains (N=10), located within a pit-complex at the village, has uncovered evidence for peri-mortem breakage, burning and knife and chop marks.  The archaeological context of the remains of the individuals indicated that this was a not discrete one-off episode but a part of a number of episodes within the residua of more than one event (Mays et al. 2017).  A minimum of at least ten individuals are represented by the skeletal material within the study, ranging in age from 2-4 years old to >50 years at death.

The osteological analysis of the nature of the peri-mortem and post-mortem treatment of the remains indicated that there could have been motivating factors of starvation cannibalism or fear of revenant corpses driving the behaviour.

The modern view of the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy. Photograph by Paul Allison, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The examination of peri-mortem marks, largely sharp-force marks such as knife-marks, are largely confined to the upper body, along with evidence of long-bone peri-mortem breakage and low-temperature burning of a number of the bodies.  The image below highlights a number of the knife-marks present on rib elements, but it was noted that cut marks could be found on various clavicles, humeri, mandibles, vertabrae and crania bases present, indicating there was a concentration on the head and neck area in order to separate the head from the vertebral column and inflict injuries upon a severed head.  Meanwhile clavicular and upper rib cuts could be associated with dismemberment of corpses post-mortem.  Unlike the cut marks and low-temperature burning, the evidence for long-bone peri-mortem breaking involved both the upper and lower limbs to a similar extent, although the presence of breaking was limited among the assemblage (Mays et al. 2017: 450).

The sequence of events, from the osteological material and archaeological contexts, suggests that the bodily mutilation preceded the burning, where both where in evidence (Mays et al. 2011: 449).

Evidence of parallel cut marks on the external surface of one rib fragment (a) from Wharram Percy, with (b) showing further cut marks on another rib fragment indicative of peri- and post-mortem funerary processing. Image credit Mays et al. (2011: 441).

Further strontium isotopic analysis of the dental enamel of sixteen molars, to test the range for geographic origin via local geology, were selected from the medieval cemetery population and the pit-complex assemblage.  The testing revealed that nearly all individuals investigated all had local strontium values.  Only one pit-complex individual, ‘mandible D’, had a non-local value which may have been from further afield (but only just, possibly).  This analysis helped disprove the hypothesis that the pit-complex individuals, those with the knife-marks, and evidence for burning etc. came from a different geographic region than from the local area as compared to the control population of the cemetery group (Mays et al. 2017: 446).

In a 2017 University of Southampton press release for the article Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England known for his bioarchaeological research (such as Mays 1999), stated that:

The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best.  If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own.

As the above and the Mays et al. 2017 research article below make clear, there is good evidence within the Wharram Percy pit-complex assemblage for the argument of starvation cannibalism and/or for treatment to combat the revenant dead, that is in order to stop a corpse from re-animating as per traditional mythology.

And yet there are arguments against both interpretations – the fact that there are barely any cut or knife-marks below the chest on the osteological material analysed, that there is a lack of pot-polish from boiling of the remains, or the fact that the revenant dead are usually male whereas the Wharram Percy pit-complex individuals include well represented females and non-adults.

Instead the investigators are careful with their interpretation and note the likelihood that the assemblage at this location, time and evidence point towards revenant activity rather than starvation cannibalism.

A Worthy End?

So there we have it, a very quick tour through the ages to see that although the Lord Commander Mormont suffered an inglorious end as a skull-cup, he was by no means the only one and he could not come back as a revenant.  Although I picked fault with the method of his skull processing, we can see in the osteological and archaeological examples above that there are no set ways to process bodies during the peri- and post-mortem phases, therefore as bioarchaeologists or archaeologists it pays to investigate each avenue of evidence and see where it fits best within our current knowledge base.

Notes

(1.)  Okay, I admit it – I started to write this post a while ago and I never quite finished it or got round to writing out a full draft.  Game of Thrones, the HBO television series, has now finished with the somewhat rushed conclusion to Season 8 airing in 2019.  As of this blog post I am currently four volumes into the book series on which the television series is based, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  It’s intriguing so far and I’m keen to see how it diverges from the television series.

(2.)  The Wikipedia page on the War of the Roses has a fantastic family tree diagram with the affiliation of the kings, families and nobles of the various English civil wars that make up the 15th century conflict.  It is well worth having a look and then trying to take it in the full page – it is not something I am particularly familiar with!

Further Information

Bibliography

Bello, S. M. Parfitt, S. A. & Stringer, C. B. 2011. Earliest Directly Dated Skull-CupsPLoS ONE. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017026. (Open Access).

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

Mays, S., Fryer, R., Pike, A. W. G., Cooper, M. J. & Marshall, P. 2017. A Multidisciplinary Study of a Burnt and Mutilated Assemblage of Human Remains from a Deserted Mediaeval Village in EnglandJournal of Archaeological Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.02.023. (Open Access).

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

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

17 Oct

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


Introduction

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

Intentional Cranial Modifications

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

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

Intentional Cranial Deformation Types

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

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

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

Origin in Barbarian World

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

1-acd-from-museum-in-kikinda-germanic-tribe-grave-photo-taken-by-me

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

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

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

2-viminacium-reconstruction-of-gepid-woman-after-%d0%bc%d0%b8%d0%ba%d0%b8%d1%9b-1993-picture-2

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

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

3-skull-1-rendgen-after-mikic-picture-3

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

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

4-skull-2-parietal-deformation-after-mikic-picture-4

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

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

5-projection-of-acd-from-sirmiumafter-miladinovic-radmilovic-picture-5

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

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

6-reconstruction-of-skull-in-sirmium-after-miladinovic-radmilovic-picture-6

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Notes

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skeletal Series Part 3: The Human Skull

22 Apr

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

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

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

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

Excavation

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

Handling

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

Anatomical Planes

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

Cranial Terminology and Elements

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

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

Paired Elements

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

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

Single Elements

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

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

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

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

General Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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