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The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Decapitation, Decoration, and Deformation

Edited by Michelle Bonogofsky

Publication Year: 2011

Building on the notion that human remains provide a window into the past, especially regarding identity, the contributors to this volume reflect on intentional and ritualized practices of manipulating the human head within ancient societies. These essays explore the human head’s symbolic role in political, social, economic, and religious ritual over the centuries.

By focusing on the various ways in which the head was treated at the time of death, as well as before and following, scholars uncover the significant social meaning of such treatment. This illuminating collection highlights biological and cultural manipulations of human heads, ultimately revealing whose skulls and heads were collected and why, whether as ancestors or enemies, as insiders or outsiders, as males, females, or children.

Featuring a wealth of case studies from scholars across the globe, this volume emphasizes social identity and the use of the body in ritual, making it particularly helpful to all those interested in the cross-cultural handling of skulls and heads.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. v-vi

List of Figures

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pp. vii-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

The human head as represented by skulls has a long history of study in anthropology in general and bioarchaeology in particular. Indeed, the focus on human anatomy above the neck is a founding interest of physical anthropology, largely emphasizing...

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pp. xvii

This is the second of two volumes based on papers presented at the 2005 and 2006 European Association of Archaeologists annual meetings, during sessions that I organized and chaired on skull collection, modification, and decoration. The first volume, Skull...

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1. Contextualizing the Human Head: An Introduction

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pp. 1-48

This book is the product of an emerging concern in bioarchaeology: the conceptual status of the human body and its parts in the past—notably, whose heads and skulls were given special treatment and why, whether as ancestor or enemy, as insider or outsider, as adult or child, or as male or female. Ancient human groups...

Part 1. Symbolic and Contextual Approaches

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pp. 49

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2. Heads as Memorials and Status Symbols: The Collection and Use of Skulls in the Torres Strait Islands

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pp. 51-66

This chapter deals with mortuary and headhunting practices in the Torres Strait Islands; these practices disappeared completely in the period up to and including the conversion to Christianity, beginning in 1871 with the arrival of the London Missionary...

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3. Melanesian Modeled Skulls, Mortuary Ritual, and Dental X-Rays: Ancestors, Enemies, Women, and Children

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pp. 67-96

Uncertainty regarding the identification of an object or skeletal specimen may be constructive when unresolved ambiguities “serve as stimuli for the development of research” (Winter 1999: 251). These ambiguities are dispelled with the application of a label in which objects are categorized, an...

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4. Marquesan Trophy Skulls: Description, Osteological Analyses, and Changing Motivations in the South Pacific

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pp. 97-121

Several museum and private collections curate decorated skulls from the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. Regarded as trophy skulls, these objects are composed of a human skull adorned with pig canines to which a mandible was ingeniously attached using a vegetal bond. Nineteenth-century descriptions of the Marquesas Islands indicate...

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5. The Social Lives of Severed Heads: Skull Collection and Display in Medieval and Early Modern Ireland

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pp. 122-138

Archaeological and historical data suggest that the collection and display of skulls and other body parts were among the many strategies used in the negotiation of power and difference between competing groups in medieval and early modern Ireland. This chapter explores...

Part 2. Bioarchaeological and Biochemical Approaches

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pp. 139

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6. Identifying the Origins of Decapitated Male Skeletons from 3 Driffield Terrace, York, through Isotope Analysis: Reflections of the Cosmopolitan Nature of Roman York in the Time of Caracalla

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pp. 141-178

In August 2004, beneath the former gardens of an eighteenth-century mansion on Driffield Terrace, in the city of York, United Kingdom, the York Archaeological Trust revealed part of a large, highly unusual nonattritional Roman period cemetery population comprising eighty individuals...

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7. Biohistory and Cranial Morphology: A Forensic Case from Spanish Colonial Georgia

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pp. 179-201

As several chapters in this volume have shown, skulls are collected from ancestors and enemies, insiders and outsiders, men, women, and children, and used for an array of purposes with numerous connotations (see also chapters in Bonogofsky 2006). Thus, it is not surprising...

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8. Skull Deformation during the Iron Age in the Trans-Urals and Western Siberia

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pp. 202-227

The practice of skull deformation is geographically widespread and exhibits considerable time-depth in Eurasia among the regions of central Europe, the Crimea, the lower Volga basin, the Cis-Urals, Central Asia, and western Siberia (Tur 1996: 237). In the Trans-Urals—the region comprising the eastern slope of the Urals—and westernmost...

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9. Marking Ethnicity through Premortem Cranial Modification among the Pre-Inca Chiribaya, Peru

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pp. 228-240

Human cranial modification represents an extremely labor-intensive process that requires sustained molding of the cranium for long periods of time during infancy—a time when the bones of the cranial vault are relatively plastic. Given the considerable investment of time and energy...

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10. Getting a Head Start in Life: Pre-Columbian Maya Cranial Modification from Infancy to Ancestorhood

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pp. 241-261

The pre-Columbian Maya possessed a penchant for irreversible alteration of their bodies—filing or inlaying teeth, piercing, and tattooing skin. These morphologically varied types of modifications communicated distinct messages, producing culturally potent and widely...

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11. How the Wari Fashioned Trophy Heads for Display: A Distinctive Modified Cranium from Cuzco, Peru, and Comparison to Trophies from the Capital Region

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pp. 262-285

The taking of human trophy skulls has a long and varied history in the pre-Columbian Andes, most notably among the Nasca of Peru’s south-central coast (AD 1–750; see Forgey this volume). The later Wari Empire (AD 600–1000) of the central Peruvian highlands was also...

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12. Nasca Trophy Head Origins and Ancient DNA

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pp. 286-306

This chapter focuses on culturally modified human crania, or “trophy heads,” from the Early Nasca phases (AD 1–450) of the Nasca culture (AD 1–750) of the South Coast of Peru, where they are ubiquitously represented and displayed, and their meaning...

List of Contributors

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pp. 307-308


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pp. 309-323

Series List

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813048185
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813035567
Print-ISBN-10: 0813035562

Page Count: 340
Illustrations: 18 tables, 42 b&w photos, 44 drawings
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Head -- Abnormalities.
  • Head -- Social aspects.
  • Skull -- Artificial deformities.
  • Cranial manipulation.
  • Beheading.
  • Human remains (Archaeology).
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