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.


Neurosurg Focus. 2014;36(4):e1 

In This Article

Short Review of the History of the Hun-Germanic Period (AD 420–455 and 455–567) and of the Most Significant Finds of Intentionally Deformed Crania in the Carpathian Basin (Hungary)

In the 1st millennium ad, besides the Romans and the nomadic populations of Eastern origin (namely Alans, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, and ancient Hungarian tribes), the Germanic peoples (that is, Gepids, Ostrogoths, and Langobards) played a key role in the history of the Carpathian Basin.[12]

Before the appearance of the Huns in the Great Hungarian Plain—as the region is called today—the Germanic tribes attempted to enter the territory of the Roman Empire, which might have provided prosperity and security for them. The province of Pannonia lay west of the River Danube in the Carpathian Basin. In the 3rd century, the importance of the Sarmatian land, the Barbarian territory, increased for the Romans as a defense zone against eastern assaults because they had to confront Gothic attacks from the east.[35] In 375, the Huns crossed the River Volga and forced the fleeing peoples westward. At the end of the 4th century, the united Hun-Alan-Gothic troops defeated the Roman legions in a battle of great consequence near Hadrianopolis (Edirne, Turkey) and Rome was compelled to allow the victorious peoples to move westward and settle down in Pannonia Province. This, then, induced a population movement of peoples of Turkish, Iranian, and Germanic origin, which grew to such large dimensions as had rarely occurred in the history of Eurasia. In the Carpathian Basin, uninterrupted fighting in the frontier zone of the Roman Empire resulted in the collapse of the Sarmatian defense line. The invasion of the Huns from the East drove a lot of barbaric tribes such as Goths, Scirians, Vandals, Alans, Suebians, and Gepids across the Great Hungarian Plain. On December 31, 406, the Vandal, Alan, and Quad troops crossed the Rhine River. This date is regarded as the actual beginning of the Migration Period for the West. The Huns occupied the Carpathian Basin in a few years, and from 420 they established the center of their empire east of the River Tisza (in present-day Hungary). From this area they led campaigns against different regions of Europe. In 453 Attila, the leader of the Hun Empire, suddenly died, whereupon the dependent peoples including mainly Germanic tribes rebelled against the Huns and expelled them from the Carpathian Basin within approximately 2 years. The crash of the Hun Empire was efficiently helped by the conflict between Attila's sons for the throne.[36]

After 455, closing the Hun Period, the conquering peoples of Germanic origin took over the control of Central and Western Europe as well as Italy. The region of the Great Hungarian Plain was dominated by the Gepidic tribes, which founded a kingdom in the Tisza region and Transylvania, supported by the Byzantine Empire. At the same time, the western part of the Carpathian Basin (called Transdanubia at present) was occupied by the Ostrogoths (456–471) for 15 years, whereas in the first half of the 6th century the Langobards, a people with western Germanic roots, had control over the area. The Langobards and Gepids lived in peace until 552. That year, however, the alliance of the Gepids and the Byzantines forced the Langobards to ask the Iranian-rooted Avars for help. The decisive battle in 567 resulted in the demolition of the Gepid kingdom. The Avars, who became stronger and stronger, conquered the whole Carpathian Basin, which meant the end of the independent Central European history of the Germanic peoples. The Langobards, the former allies of Avars, had to leave the Carpathian Basin and escaped to Northern Italy in 568. Large numbers of Gepids remained in the central and eastern areas of the Plain (in present-day Hungary and Romania); they even fought side by side with the Avars against Byzantium, but their own country no longer existed. All these events of human migration shook the stability of the Roman Empire and induced a fast development of the outlines of European states-to-be.[12]

In the history of the Migration Period, the territory of Hungary is of considerable archaeological and historical importance, which unequivocally exceeds the political and geographical boundaries. Thanks to its favorable geographical location, the Carpathian Basin became a significant buffer area, as the annals of history reviewed above demonstrate.[17,23,35]

The frequent appearance of artificial cranial deformation in Europe and in the Carpathian Basin can be attributed to the movements of the Huns, who flowed into Europe in the 4th–5th century. As discussed above, peoples of different (mainly Germanic) origin were pushed westward by the Huns, and these populations may already have adopted the custom of cranial deformation from the Huns as early as the 2nd–3rd century. Archeologists have problems assigning graves and skeletons to the Huns for several reasons. On the one hand, except for the gravesites of the aristocracy, which abounded with grave goods, the commoners' graves were poorly or not furnished. On the other hand, the custom of cremation burial was also widely applied by all these populations. Just as the graves of the Huns can rarely be distinguished from the graves of the Gepids or Ostrogoths, neither can the Hun Period be marked off from the Germanic Era. That is why the two eras are jointly defined as the Hun-Germanic Period. However, the custom of artificial cranial deformation survived among the Germanic populations remaining in the area of the Avar Empire until the early 7th century.[17]

In the Carpathian Basin, including the present-day Hungary, approximately 200 skulls are regarded as artificially deformed. First Lenhossék[21] and Török[33] reported on intentionally deformed skulls in their earliest papers at the end of the 19th century. With 20 intentionally deformed skulls, the site of Kiszombor-B, described by Bartucz[3] in 1936 and attributed to the Gepidic population, is of great scientific importance. From the second half of the 20th century, Nemeskéri,[24] Kiszely,[18] and Lipták[22] dealt with this subject substantially. In the last decades, significant finds became known from Fenékpuszta and Szegvár-Oromdűlő; sites dated back to the Hun-Germanic and the Avar Periods, respectively.[13,27] From the cemetery of Mözs, which was also dated to the Hun-Germanic Period, approximately 50 artificially deformed skulls came to light. All of the finds excavated in the Carpathian Basin were dated from the late Iron Age and the early Migration Period, from the end of the 4th century to the beginning of the 7th century.