A review of the practice of intentional cranial modification in Eurasia during the Migration Period (4th – 7th c AD)

Publication date: May 2019

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 105

Author(s): P. Mayall, V. Pilbrow


The practice of intentional cranial modification was known in Eurasia since the Bronze Age. It intensified during the Migration Period (4th – 7th c AD) coinciding with the arrival of Huns in the Carpathian basin. The resurgence in the practice has been attributed to the Huns even in regions removed from the Huns in geography and time. As a highly visual symbol, cranial modification clearly played an important role in negotiating social identity. The purpose of this paper is to compare styles of modification in regions across Eurasia to determine the role of cranial modification in conveying different identities.

Three-dimensional landmark coordinates were used in a geometric morphometric analysis to compare the shape of 14 non-modified recent crania, 23 modified crania from The Republic of Georgia, 17 from Hungary, 13 from Germany, two from The Czech Republic, one from Austria and one from Crimea. A Generalized Procrustes Analysis was used to standardize size differences and reveal shape differences. Results from principal components and discriminant analysis reveal significant differences in the style and shape of cranial modification among the recent non-modified crania and modified crania from Georgia, Hungary and Germany.

A review of the tomb types, burial assemblages and historical records brings up a complex pattern of multiple social groups involved in the practice of cranial modification in each region. In Hungary the style of modification was homogeneous and the practice was local in origin. In Georgia and Germany individuals with modified crania were migrant and did not perpetuate the practice in their new homeland. We suggest that the practice was re-popularized by the Huns during the Migration Period as a means to maintain central control using a visual form of social identity. This was emulated by other nomadic groups acknowledging the importance of the practice for conveying social identity at boundaries.