I shouldn’t have read all those Conan books as a kid

My parents never got me nice things. Sure, there was that one Tony the Tiger cereal bowl we kids all fought over back in the 1960s, but they never got us one of these.


See? If I’d been born just a little earlier, 14,000 years ago instead of in the 1950s, Dad might have given me the skull of one of his enemies from which to dine on my Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. I was deprived.

This cool paper by Bello, Parfitt, and Stringer describes finds from a cave in Somerset, England which, among many other relics of Upper Paleolithic habitation, included several human skull caps with clear signs of post-mortem modification. My father’s lineage descended from people in that part of the world, so now I’m really miffed — it was an old family tradition, and they just didn’t keep it up.

Anyway, the authors analyzed these curious crania and found cut marks where they’d been defleshed, and percussion marks where the bone had been shaped. They’re fairly thorough in describing the process — it’s almost a how-to — so maybe we’ll get something on Etsy or Make magazine sometime.

The distribution of the cut-marks and percussion damage on the Gough’s Cave cranial sample indicates the skilled post-mortem processing of the head. This included careful removal of soft tissues and controlled percussion. Cut-marks on the areas of insertion of neck muscles and the presence of cut-marks in proximity to the foramen magnum indicate that the head was detached from the body at the base of the skull. This is confirmed by the distribution of cut-marks on the axis and atlas vertebrae, which indicate dismemberment of the neck and head. It is likely that this took place shortly after death, before desiccation of the soft tissues or decomposition and natural disarticulation had occurred. The presence of cut-marks on the areas of insertions of the medial pterygoid muscle (both on the sphenoid and the mandible) indicate subsequent detachment of the mandible from the skull. In the case of the two maxillae, the front teeth showed post-mortem scratches and percussion fractures on the inferior border of their labial surfaces. Although non-masticatory scratches on front teeth are well documented, descriptions of percussion modifications are rare in the literature, making it difficult to interpret their significance. Because of the taphonomic and sedimentological characteristics of the site, it is very unlikely that these modifications were naturally produced by sediment pressure or trampling. Neither can these marks be attributed to post-excavation cleaning or instrument damage. If associated with the processing of the head, it is possible that scratches and breakages were induced by a lever inserted between the occlusal plane of the front teeth, in order to disjoint and separate upper and lower jaws. The distribution of cut-marks on the temporal, sphenoid, parietal and zygomatic bones indicate removal of the major muscles of the skull (masseter and temporalis). The location of cut-marks in discrete areas such as the lingual surface of the mandible, the alveolar process of the maxilla, the root of the zygomatic process on the temporal bone and along the fronto-nasal suture, indicates that the tongue, lips, ears, and nose were also removed. Cut-marks around and inside the eye sockets and on the malar fossae of the maxilla suggest extraction of the eyes and cheeks. Finally, the high incidence of oblique para-sagittal cut-marks on the vault, in areas far from the attachment of muscles, on the squama of the frontal and on the parietals on both sides of the sagittal suture, suggests scalp removal. All these modifications are indicative of meticulous removal of the soft tissues covering the skull. The final stage in the sequence of alterations involved controlled percussion resulting in a systematic pattern of removal of the facial bones and the cranial base with minimum breakage of the vault. The distribution of impact damage and flaking is indicative of carefully controlled chipping of the broken edges in order to make them more regular.

Well, I’m going to go have my breakfast now. In a plain old boring ceramic bowl. You know, this heart-healthy diet I’m on would have a little more pizazz if it were served properly…just a hint.