Cheddar’s Cranial Cups

At the Magdalenian (17 to 9 kya) site of Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, England, a number of controversial human remains are finally being analyzed after over twenty years of debate. Both natural and human damage were cited, however no full analysis or interpretation had been undertaken. The hypotheses for the altered state of the bones ranged from natural breakage to cannibalism. Bello, Parfitt and Stringer (2011) argue that based on their analysis of the cranial modifications, that early man was producing human skull-cups. They also argue that these are the earliest examples of skull cups.

At the site, there were 41 portions of cranial bone found, that belong to a minimum number of 5 individuals, including a young child, two adolescents, one middle aged adult, and one old adult. Post-mortem modification was primarily through human intention. Based on the patterns of breakage and weathering, natural taphonomic processes are argued to have had little effect on the bone. However, the bones have a high number of cut-marks from stone tools consistent with slicing and chopping activities while the bone was still fresh. The frequency of cut-marks was extremely high, but that of percussion marks was fairly low, and both of these marks were present only on the outer surface. Cut-marks along the frontal bone were consistent with the removal of the temporalis muscle, around the orbits to remove the orbicularis oculi muscle, the parietal to remove the sternocleidomastoid muscle, and various others. The percussion marks were focused primarily along the nasal, coronoid, temporal and occipital sutures in order to remove the skull cap from the remaining portions. This pattern of modification is suggestive of scalping and removal of the intact skull vault, and was found to be consistent on all individuals.

When comparing the pattern of breakage and cutting against other modified crania, they found that this type of activity was consistent with the creation of human skull cups. They compared their material against other Magdalenian evidence from the Le Placard and Isturitz sites, as well as known cannibalized human remains and modified animal remains from the site. Given these, they argue that the clustering of cut-marks and percussion is more suggestive of ritual use rather than food use. While there were some consistencies in modification between the faunal and human remains, these were limited to the mandible. This could mean a dual practice of cannibalism and ritual skull use.

The use of skull caps as drinking vessels is not as rare as one may think, and it is a practice that continues today in Nepal and Tibet among some Hindu and Buddhist sub-sects where it is a symbol of human sacrifice to divinity. Historical accounts note a variety of cultures employed them in rituals. In ancient Mongolia and China, the use of a skull cap for drinking was part of conquering other nations as well as forming peace agreements. In Japan in 1570, the warlord Oda Nobunaga took the skull caps from the three sons of his rival clans and used them as sake cups. The Scythians and Strabo cultures from Ancient Rome were noted by Herodotus to drink from the skulls of their enemies. Celtic tribes from Europe were recorded to have used skull cups during ceremonies. More recently, Lord Byron in the 19th century used a skull recovered by his gardener as a cup for claret.

The article has a number of important features, as well as some problems. The author’s do a great job of comparing their evidence against others from similarly dated sites, as well as ethnographic and historic ones. However, our judgment of the comparison is limited due to a lack of explicit information on these comparative sites. The historical and documentary evidence supports their conclusion, but what we need is an explicit comparative study of all available skull cups. Historical accounts notoriously exaggerate “barbaric acts” in order to rationalize colonialism or argue for the dominant culture, and therefore a number of the accounts listed above must be taken with caution.

While this article serves as a great beginning into this type of study, a more detailed investigation needs to follow. I would love to see them continue the cut-mark and percussion analysis, and visually compare the patterns of the Gough’s skull against those from Le Placard and Isturitz. Ideally this comparison would include ethnographic observation of a modern skull cup being processed.

I leave you with Lord Byron’s (1808) words; the poem which he composed as he drank from his own skull cup.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,

In aid of others’ let me shine;

And when, alas ! our brains are gone,

What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst: another race,

When thou and thine, like me, are sped,

May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,

And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not?    Since through life’s little day

Our heads such sad effects produce;

Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,

This chance is theirs, to be of use.

Works Cited

Bello, Parfitt and Stringer. 2011. Earliest Directly Dated Human Skuull Cup. In PLOS One Online 6(2).

Byron. 1808. Lines Inscribed Upon a Skull Cup.

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