‘Skull-Shaping’ Reveals How Communities Responded to the Fall of Rome

Artificially shaped skull of an adult woman from Mozs cemetery. Curt-Engelhorn-Center for Archaeometry in Germany and Eötvös Loránd University

An ancient cemetery where people practiced ‘skull-shaping’ is showing how communities responded to the fall of Rome

As the Roman Empire collapsed over the course of the AD 400s, new powers rushed to fill the vacuums left by Rome’s retreats. But what were the effects on the lives of everyday people? And how did they respond to the upheaval?

Usually, this kind of detail goes unrecorded, but archaeologists studying remains from Mözs-Icsei dűlő cemetery in Western Hungary have found shining new evidence of how, in the face of regional strife, some communities welcomed newcomers into their midst and even adopted many aspects of their culture – including modifying the shape of their skulls.

In use around AD 430-470, 51 of the 96 individuals buried at Mözs-Icsei dűlő were found to have skulls which had been artificially shaped from wearing tight head wrappings during childhood, making the cemetery home to one of the highest concentrations of deliberately modified skulls in Central Europe.

By AD 433, Rome had lost control of the region (then known as Pannonia) to the Huns, with numerous groups flooding into the area as they headed for the western provinces, or for forts and cities. The arriving groups also established new rural settlements (often in connection to former Roman infrastructure).

To find out more about who they were, and where they came from, the team used stable isotope analysis to re-examine the bones, which were originally excavated in the 1960s. By using this technique, in combination with other archaeological evidence from the cemetery, the new research identified three distinct groups, buried over the course of two or three generations.

Examples of artificially modified skulls at the cemetery of Mözs. A: Variant I: traces of circular binding causing a strong upward deformation (grave 90), B: Variant II: traces of binding on the forehead causing a strong backward-upward deformation (grave 52), C: Variant III: medium degree of circular deformation, mostly backwards (grave 53), and D: Variant IV: slight deformation due to cross-bandages (grave 82). Individuals with artificially deformed skulls occurred throughout the cemetery and comprised 31.6% (n = 6) of the burials in Group A, 64.6% of the individuals in Group B (n = 31) and 70% of the individuals in Group C (n = 14).

The first was a small founder population of local origin, buried in Roman-style brick graves, with Roman and Hun style grave goods. The strontium isotope ratios in their bones indicated a largely local diet.

The second was a group of 12 newcomers, who seem to have arrived at Mözs-Icsei around a decade after the founders. Ten of them had modified skulls, and all of them seemed to share a similar, non-local, isotopic and cultural background.

The third was a group of later burials, in which the customs of both earlier populations seem to mingle, blending the old Romanized culture with various newly-arrived traditions; as well as including some founder-style grave goods, skull-shaping seems to have exploded in popularity.

In short, the evidence suggests that the Mözs-Icsei dűlő founders soon welcomed a group of newcomers and, over the next generation, even adopted some of the customs they brought with them – including modifying the shape of their skulls.

“The community … accepted and integrated men, women, and children of different geographical and cultural backgrounds during the two to three generations of its existence” the researchers wrote in PLOS ONE.

“Placed into the historical narrative, this could be understood as the emergence of a Roman-‘Barbarian’ Mischkultur (mixed culture), in which Romanised ‘Barbarians’ and ‘barbarised’ late Roman population groups were indistinguishable.”

Skull-shaping is the practice of using headbands or bindings to influence the shape of a child’s still-growing skull, and has been used by communities around the world at various points in time. Archaeologists have found elongated skulls across Central and Eastern Europe, in what is now Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as in North and South America, Asia and Africa. The practice seems to have no effect on cognitive function, but seems to have been used as a marker of social status, group belonging, or simply as a way to enhance an individual’s beauty.

Whatever the reasons it was adopted among the people of Mözs-Icsei dűlő, it provides us with a remarkable example of how communities have, in the past, joined together during periods of unparalleled regional strife.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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