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


The appearance of artificial cranial deformation in Europe and the Carpathian Basin was probably related to the movements of the Huns. It seems feasible that the practice of this custom was coextensive with the Hun migration. The data that are known suggest that certain elements of the Hun population came into contact with Alan-Turkish peoples, which were in the habit of performing cranial deformation in the area of the present-day Tajikistan.[23] Thus, the Huns can only be considered to be the transmitters and not the developers of this tradition. The custom of intentional head shaping was actually a "fashion wave" in the Eurasian steppes, which spread to Central and Western Europe.[17] This custom might have enhanced the social status of individuals and became a sign of ethnicity in Central Europe. It is conceivable that the Germanic peoples adopted the habits of the Huns (including intentional cranial deformation) in the first place because they wanted to be integrated into the Hun Empire and adapt to the conquerors in the hope of subsistence and advance. At that time, the German leaders were integrated by the Huns through marriages of convenience and their warriors were allowed to join the Hun army immediately.

The earliest cases of artificial cranial modification in Eurasia date from the Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1000 bc), practiced by peoples of the "Catacomb" culture and by those of southern Turkmenistan.[34,38] Nevertheless, this custom disappeared in both of these regions and became common again among the nomadic tribes and herdsmen of the Eurasian steppes in the early Iron Age (ca. 700–500 bc), first reappearing at the delta of the River Syr Darya.[38] From the time between these two periods, no artificially modified skulls appeared in Eurasian archaeological sites. It is quite feasible that there was no continuity in the practice of head deformation in this region and that the custom of artificial cranial modification might have evolved independently in these two periods. Moreover, recorded cases dating from the Bronze Age and early Iron Age are presumably not connected with intentionally modified crania from the Carpathian Basin (Hungary). The mode of deformation that affects both the frontal and occipital bones of the skull only became widespread in Central Asia in the 2nd–1st century bc.

Considering the chronology of the finds associated with the intentionally modified crania excavated in the Carpathian Basin, the ethnic relations, and the agglomeration points from the east to the west, 6 phases or groups can be distinguished for the purpose of classifying the Eurasian artificial cranial deformation cases (Fig. 5).[24]

Figure 5.

Map showing the spread of the custom of cranial deformation from Central Asia to Central and Western Europe, in 6 groups or phases. I = Central Asian group; II = Caucasus, Volga region, and Kalmykia steppe group; III = Danube Basin group; IV = Middle Germanic group; V = South and Southwest Germanic group; VI = Rhone group.

Skull Deformation Phases or Groups

1) Central Asian Group. The probable origin of artificial cranial deformation can be localized in the territory west of the Tien-Shan, in the valley of Talas and in the Pamir Mountains north of that. This center can be dated from the 1st century bc. The group is also called the Kenkol group, which might be associated with the Hiung-nus (Huns).[14] The feature of this group is the "classical" skull deformation.

2) Caucasus, Volga Region, and Kalmykia Steppe Group. The nomadic peoples of the steppes (Sarmatians, Alans) conveyed the tradition of intentional cranial deformation to the west circa ad 200. The tradition spread through the Hun invasion, which, across the steppes of Kalmykia and along the Black Sea, reached the River Volga and got as far as the mouth of the River Dnieper. At the same time, some groups of these populations spread both south and north of the Caucasus, forming a partly separate group, where the custom of artificial cranial deformation can be detected as late as the 7th century ad. In this phase, the custom was practiced by the Huns, the Sarmatian-Alans, and various ethnically separate Germanic tribes.

3) Danube Basin Group. This group includes the sites of artificially deformed skulls in Central Europe (present-day Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic). The center was in present-day Hungary, where more than 200 Hun and Germanic (mainly Gepidic) deformed skulls became known, predominantly dating from the 5th to 6th century.[17,23,27] The extent of deformations varies from the heavily deformed skulls to the slightly deformed crania and, as far as types of deformation are concerned, besides circular modification forms the tabular deformation types are also present. However, within this large area, regional subcenters can also be distinguished.

4) Middle Germanic Group. The Thuringian area can be determined as a single consistent group. A special characteristic of this phase is that all of the intentionally deformed crania excavated here are identified as belonging to females. These deformed skulls show ethnic relation to the Langobards, who were subjugated by the Huns.

5) South and Southwest Germanic Group. A small number of deformed skulls are known from burial sites in both the Bavarian and the Rhenish territories. The ethnic origin of these macrocephalic finds is not always clear.

6) Rhone Group. This close and unified group located in the southwest of Switzerland as well as in the east of France and the north of Italy, around Lake Geneva and in the valley of the Rhone River is the westernmost group of the Eurasian intentionally deformed cranial finds. The local tradition of skull deformation was practiced by the Burgundians in the early decades of the 5th century, up to ad 443. Generally, slightly and moderately deformed skulls are represented in both sexes.

The cranial finds described in this paper belong to the Danube Basin group, the third group mentioned above. The ethnic context of the finds is unambiguous. From an anthropological point of view, all of the individuals manifest the characteristics of the Europid great race, which generally marks the skeletal remains of the common people of Hun and Germanic tribes without any Mongoloid features, whereas these latter traits mainly appear in Hun individuals belonging to the aristocracy, but never in the skeletons of Germanic peoples.

The mode of deformation of the skulls from the Ároktő Csík-gát site is uniform. Because the crania examined showed similar anatomical alterations, they could be classified as a single group, namely the circular erect type. The use of bandaging caused characteristic circular deformation. The values on the OGŽ index were high, which indicated deformations of large extent; that is, the crania could be categorized as hypermacrocranic. Although the OGŽ index of cranium No. 166 could not be measured because of the absence of the splanchnocranium, estimates suggested a medium degree of deformity and the cranium could be regarded as macrocranic. It could also be observed that the age at death of the individuals was relatively young (15–17 and 21–25 years of age). Artificial cranial deformation occurred in both sexes.

In contrast with the Ároktő Csík-gát burial site, the finds from the Nyíregyháza M3, 36/c cemetery show a wider variety of the types, the techniques, and the extent of deformation. Circular oblique, tabular oblique, and erect types could be distinguished. The use of bandaging was common in this population, with the exception of the cranium in Grave No. 220, which showed no evidence of this usage. In this case, the skull deformation seems to have been achieved using a rigid device, but definitely without a bandage. In a few cases we could observe a flat area caused by one or two hard objects pressed to the frontooccipital surface (Nos. 40, 42, and 61); to the frontal bone (Nos. 40 and 50); or to the occipital surface (No. 220) of the skull. The values of the OGŽ index indicated slightly deformed (Nos. 40, 42, 49, and 61), and medium deformed (Nos. 50 and 220) crania. The age at death was calculated to be relatively higher. Both sexes were represented.