Artificially Deformed Crania From the Hun-Germanic Period (5th–6th Century AD) in Northeastern Hungary

Historical and Morphological Analysis

Mónika Molnár, M.S.; István János, Ph.D.; László Szűcs, M.S.; László Szathmáry, C.Sc.

Disclosures

Neurosurg Focus. 2014;36(4):e1 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

From an anthropological point of view, artificial deformation of the cranial shape in newborns is one of the most interesting human customs, which has been recorded in all continents and in different cultures. However, the main goals of this procedure were basically the same everywhere; that is, to distinguish certain groups of people from others and to indicate the social status of individuals. In the Carpathian Basin all artificially deformed skulls are dated to the late Iron Age, especially to the early Migration Period. The authors examined 9 artificially deformed skulls from the Hun-Germanic Period (5th–6th century ad) excavated from two cemeteries in the northeastern part of the Great Hungarian Plain (Hungary). The extent and the type of the deformation as well as the technique were determined in each case. The authors also attempt to shed light on the probable origin and the historical context of the custom practiced in the Carpathian Basin (Hungary), relying on the anthropological and historical literature on the Hun-Germanic and preceding periods. It seems possible that this custom, which is associated with the finds in the Carpathian Basin, first appeared in the Kalmykia steppe, later in the Crimea, from where it spread to Central and Western Europe by way of the Hun migration. Neither the cranial find described presently nor the special literature on the subject furnish convincing evidence that the cranial deformation resulted in any chronic neurological disorder.

Introduction

Modifications of parts of the body which cause permanent alteration in the shape (such as body piercing, tattooing, mutilation, circumcision, clitoridectomy, foot binding, and so on) have been practiced from the beginning of human history. The main goals of these customs must have been basically the same everywhere; that is, to distinguish certain groups of people from others and to indicate the social status of individuals.

The various types of artificial skeletal modifications were widespread all over the world in the past, and two of them in particular—the intentional deformation of the cranium and the practice of trephination—are of great paleoneurosurgical and paleopathological importance.[5,10,29]

From an anthropological point of view, artificial cranial deformation of infants seems to be one of the most interesting human customs, which has been recorded in all continents and in different cultures. Intentionally deformed skulls have been described in written sources from the earliest times of appearance.[4,7,17] According to the current state of knowledge, this custom probably appeared independently in different regions of the world.[28–30] Artificially deformed skulls dating back to as early as the Late Paleolithic Period have been recorded.[8,9,37] The alteration of head shape, which was widely favored because of the plasticity of the cranium of newborn infants, was performed with the help of a strong pressure exerted on the head from the 1st day of life to approximately 3 years of age.

The origin and the culture of the peoples who lived in the Carpathian Basin in the Hun-Germanic Period (5th–6th century ad), are still a matter of debate.[20] However, it has been pointed out that the custom of artificial cranial deformation appeared with all these peoples; that is, with the Sarmatian, Alan, Gothic, Gepidic, and Hun populations equally.

In the present work, 9 artificially deformed skulls excavated from two contemporaneous cemeteries dated to the Migration (Hun-Germanic) Period (5th–6th century) in northeastern Hungary were analyzed from a physical anthropological point of view. The basic aims of this study were to attempt to shed light on the type and the extent of the deformation as well as to determine the technique used for head shaping in each case. Additionally, the possible origin and ethnic context of the intentional deformation that appeared in the Carpathian Basin are discussed, alluding to the results of anthropological, archaeological, and historical research. Finally, the possible neurological disorders emerging from the change of the head shape are also referred to.

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