Archaeology news: Roman cemetery excavation unearths horrific ’modified head’ haul

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Archaeologists stumbled upon the disturbing find after excavating a fifth-century AD cemetery in Pannonia. The area was then an ancient Roman province, now in modern-day western Hungary.

The researchers realised a significant portion of those buried there had unnaturally elongated skulls.

This kind of modification can be a tool for creating or maintaining different social identities

Zsófia Rácz

Archaeologists estimate approximately 51 of 96 men, women, and children buried in the Mözs-Icsei dűlő cemetery had oblong-shaped heads.

Zsófia Rácz, an Eötvös Loránd University archaeologist and her team performed sophisticated analysis in an attempt to learn more about those interned in the cemetery.

This involved isotope inspection of samples obtained from the skeletons’ bones and teeth.

The results revealed how 23 of the victims had strontium isotopes not found locally, suggesting they originated from elsewhere.

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All these newcomers had modified skulls, leading Ms Rácz and her colleagues to conclude the practice was actually introduced to the local Pannonians.

Some of these local Pannonians’ skeletons also had oblong-shaped skulls.

However, it remains a mystery exactly why skull modification took hold in this region of the Carpathian Basin after the Roman Empire’s dramatic fall.

One of the most likely possibilities is the unusual skull shapes may have been a way of cultivating group identity.

Ms Rácz said in a statement: “This kind of modification can be a tool for creating or maintaining different social identities.

“It may signify status, ethnicity, familial affiliations, or communal affiliations.”

Intriguingly, this swathe of land-locked Europe has long been associated with the practice of modifying human skulls.

Bio-archaeologist Mario Novak of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb suggests artificially-shaped heads may have been used by cultural groups in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

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He believes the practice, horrifying by modern-day standards, was as a visual indicator of cultural association.

The archaeologist’s colleagues studied in 2019 the remains of three malnourished boys discovered in a burial pit in eastern Croatia’s Hermanov vinograd site.

The trio, aged between 12 and 16 when they died, likely lived between AD 415 and 560 – an era known as the Migration Period.

DNA analysis of the remains suggests one boy, whose skull had been heightened and his forehead flattened, had ancestors from the Near East.

The second, whose skull had been elongated diagonally almost certainly carried East Asian ancestry.

And the skull of the third boy, who is thought to have come from West Eurasia, had not been modified.

Mr Novak added it remains unknown if artificial cranial deformation was a widespread practice in Europe at the time.

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