As they stormed out of the Russian steppes into Roman territory in western Eurasia in the fourth century CE, the Huns were, it is generally accepted, a scary sight.
The fear they induced was not merely because of the way they were dressed, how they were armed, or the ruthless way they crushed all who attempted to oppose them. It was more than that: many, perhaps most, of them were physically deformed, their skulls unnaturally huge and protuberant.
They looked, in fact, frighteningly weird. They were warriors from nightmares.
The Huns practised cranial modification. They applied sustained pressure to the heads of their children – starting from very shortly after birth – to change the shape of their skulls, pushing them in and making them longer.
In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, however, researchers Varsha Pilbrow and Peter Mayall from Australia’s University of Melbourne show that the invaders were far from unique in their taste for stretching, squeezing and binding crania.
Among many cultures worldwide, the practice has been known since the Bronze Age, although it was pretty much discontinued across the Roman Empire. What the Huns can lay claim to, the researchers say, is inspiring a massive revival of it in many parts of Europe – even in lands in which they did not set foot.
Deformed skulls, Pilbrow and Mayall write, weren’t just a method of scaring the hell out of strangers. They were also symbols of belonging.
“More than other forms of body modification, such as scarification, tattooing, or dental engraving, intentional cranial modification is a clear mark of ascribed social identity because the individual is never consulted but co-opted into the practice by society to demonstrate some aspect of aesthetic, gender, status or group identity,” they write.
To make their finding, the pair imaged and analysed 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, all dating from the period known as the Great Migration, lasting between the fourth and seventh centuries.
These were then compared to 14 unmodified skulls.
The results showed that methods of cranial modification varied by region, indicating that the results signified membership of different cultures. There was evidence, too, that in some areas people with deformed heads – presumed to be immigrants – did not continue the practice in their new lands.
Across the different cultures, cranial deformation was applied to men and women. Indeed, the skulls found in Georgia, Bavaria and Hungary were predominantly female – although the researchers suggest this could be in part an artefact of sample bias, reflecting the fact that more female skulls have been found.
Nevertheless, in some areas, such as Bavaria, the evidence suggests migration was female-led.
The centre of cranial modification practice was undoubtedly Hungary, where the incoming Huns established their settlements. Pilbrow and Mayall report that, although examples of skull deformation dating to the Bronze Age and to the first century CE have been found there, “the highest incidences of cranial modification are seen … after the arrival of the Huns and the pattern persists after the end of the Hunnic empire”.
The practice there, they say, can be properly described as indigenous and local.
The passion for warping the skulls of babies, however, also seemingly surged in many other areas, including some the Huns never even visited, much less pillaged.
The researchers present multiple lines of evidence to support this finding, including the fact that there were different styles of deformation. Genetic evidence, too, shows that the practice spread far beyond the Huns themselves.
“In a genomic analysis, females with modified crania were quite heterogeneous in their ancestry,” they write, “showing northern/central and south/south-eastern European ancestry as well as East Asian ancestry.”
Just why the practice spread far and wide after the Huns made their presence known is something of a mystery, but Pilbrow and Mayall suggest that it might have been because reputation spreads much further than people.
“We postulate … that it denotes the prolonged cultural influence of the Huns rather than their physical presence, and that the renewed impetus for modification was the need to maintain social identity while migrating and encountering other groups,” they write.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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