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


In the international neurological or neurosurgical literature, studies on Hungarian cranial deformations have not yet been published. Thus, in the present paper we first attempt to shed light on the history, the origin, and the ethnic context of the custom of intentional skull deformation performed in the area of present-day Hungary. The technique used to deform the head and the types of deformations that appeared in the Carpathian Basin (Hungary) are also discussed. Additionally, we offer a morphological description and analysis of 9 artificially deformed skulls dating from the 5th century that were excavated in northeastern Hungary.

As a result of our examinations, we could point out that the cranial finds, both chronologically and ethnically (5th century, Hun-Germanic Period) belonged to the Danube Basin group, which represented the third phase in the Eurasian expansion of the custom of artificial cranial deformation transmitted by the Huns from the east to the west. The skulls were described in detail, considering the mode, the type, and the extent of deformation. Determination of the exact ethnic group to which the individuals belonged was not possible due to the lack of artifacts explicitly referring to either Germanic or Hun populations. All 9 of the crania showed the features of the Europid great race, which characterized the common people of both Hun and Germanic tribes on a large scale. There were no sex differences with respect to the modes or types of modification, and deformed crania appeared with both sexes.

Data known from specialized literature[17,23,27] and our own results equally suggest that the peoples of the Carpathian Basin (Hungary) dating from the Hun-Germanic Period modified their children's skulls frontooccipitally by using bandages and rigid instruments, which resulted in tabular modification forms. The circular types of deformation achieved by applying one or more bandages also seem to have been prevalent (Fig. 6). The intervention changes the normal shape of the head and restricts the development of the cranium in anterior-posterior and/or lateral directions, but permits compensatory growth of the skull—thus the cranial capacity remains constant.[6] Considering that the custom of artificial cranial deformation was widespread in the Carpathian Basin and might be an indication of the social status of individuals in the 5th–7th centuries, we can assume with good reason that, in the vast majority of cases, this practice should not have caused any neurological disorder or any other serious health problems.

Figure 6.

Drawings showing the techniques of intentional cranial modification used in the Carpathian Basin (modified from techniques published by Kiszely17). A: Hard instrument pressed by a bandage. B: Simple bandaging. C: Double bandaging.

Nevertheless, in a recent paper Józsa and Pap[16] reported on the morphological similarity of present-day cases of premature ossification disease to artificially deformed skulls from the 4th–6th centuries. Nearly the same abnormal bone changes (small and abnormally shaped sella turcica, vestigial sinus sphenoidalis and sinus frontalis, deformed front skull pit, bigger interorbital space, shallow orbita, deformed and narrow foramen opticum, and impressiones digitales on the bones of skull vault) were found in the artificially modified crania examined as the alterations typical of individuals suffering from premature cranial suture ossification (craniosynostosis). Relying on these findings, Józsa and Pap assumed that the ancient individuals with artificially distorted skulls, due to the deformed sella turcica which affected the hypophysis, might have suffered from the various clinical and endocrine symptoms that are typical of persons with craniosynostosis. These symptoms can be as follows: spontaneous nystagmus, blurred vision, deafness due to the narrowing of the external acoustic meatus, short stature, frequent hypothyroidism, adrenal hypofunction, and hypogonadism. However, the majority of these symptoms cannot be examined on skeletal finds deriving from ancient times. Consequently we suggest that such serious health problems may only have occurred with a small number of individuals with artificially deformed crania. It is hardly conceivable that such a custom, which was practiced with a result of long survival by various peoples in different historical ages nearly all over the world, would have been followed as a fashion if the health risks had been serious and numerous.