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Can You Solve the Mystery Behind This Intricately Carved Skull?

Can You Solve the Mystery Behind This Intricately Carved Skull?


Experts from a wide array of organizations are examining an intricately carved skull discovered in an antique shop in Vienna in 2011. The skull, believed to be 300 years old, is completely covered with figures and symbols that seem to hold some sort of religious significance. Yet nobody is able to determine what that significance is, let alone who carved the skull, or the identity of the person to whom the skull once belonged.

Bits and Pieces about the Carved Skull’s Owners

The shopkeeper has said that the skull was sold to him by a man who said it belonged to one of his ancestors, a medical doctor who had traveled extensively throughout Asia. Once, he was able to provide medical assistance to an abbot in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. In gratitude for his services, the abbot gave the doctor a number of relics, including the skull.

A little monastery in Tibet.

A little monastery in Tibet. (Antoine Taveneaux/CC BY SA 3.0) It is said that an abbot in a Buddhist monastery gave a doctor the carved skull for providing medical assistance.

In August 2011, the new owner of the skull posted photos of it on the website forum ‘Asian Arts.’ He wrote:

“I got this skull in March 2011 from an antique shop in Vienna, Austria. Showed it to several experts and organizations, such as the Institute for Tibetan and Buddhistic Studies in Vienna, the Museum of Natural History Vienna, and the Völkerkunde Museum. The Tibetan letters and most of the symbols got deciphered, but no one ever heard of a skull like that. Except one Tibetan Khenpo (Monk-Professor), who said such skulls were carved a long time ago to take a curse off a family or to guide the soul of a mislead human being on the right path.” (Klemens, 2011)

The Letters and Images Carved on the Skull

Further information about the practices that the Monk-Professor alluded to is incredibly limited. The letters carved into the skull’s jaw could be a Devanagari script that read “Om, Ma, Sa, Ma, Ta, Sa, Om, Da, Ma, Ta.” Others maintain that the writing is an example of the ancient script called lant’sa or the 7th-century Indian script ranja. Without definitively knowing the skull’s origin, it may be impossible to translate the letters.

Front view of the carved skull.

Front view of the carved skull. (Klemens)

The images carved into the skull provide deeper insight. The two figures featured prominently on the top of the skull are Citipati, protective deities in some Buddhist traditions. Usually, one is male and one is female, but that cannot necessarily be discerned from this skull. Citipati are lords of the underworld and are traditionally depicted dancing wildly, the eternal dance of death.

Klemens, writing later on the same Asian Art Forum, commented with some new information he had gleaned from one of the experts he wrote to: “I was told they are depicted in the "bow and arrow"-posture, which is referring to the highest grade of the outer tantra” (Klemens, 2011).

Top view of the carved skull showing Citipati.

Top view of the carved skull showing Citipati. (Klemens)

Another figure, the bird-like creature on one side of the skull, is believed to be Garuda, a deity in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Garuda is usually depicted as being part man, part eagle. He is the sworn enemy of the Nagas, a demon serpent race. Like an eagle, Garuda swoops down and snatches Nagas in his talons. On the skull, there are several squiggly lines that could be snake-demons and it definitely looks like there is one in the clutches of the bird-like creature on the side of the skull.

Garuda on the carved skull

Garuda on the carved skull. (Klemens)

On the opposite side is a figure of Vajrapani, an ancient protector who is believed to have worked with Gautama Buddha. Vajrapani actually is part of a trio, the other two of which are not believed to be represented here. The first is Avalokitesvara, who represents the infinite compassion of all the buddhas, and the second is Manjusri, who represents the infinite wisdom of all the buddhas. Vajrapani represents the infinite power of the buddhas. There is also a female figure that has yet to be identified.

A figure of Vajrapani on the carved skull.

A figure of Vajrapani on the carved skull. (Klemens)

Finally, the space between these figures is full of Om symbols and animals that could be goats, snakes, squirrels, an elephant head, and birds. Each of these could have a unique meaning or they could collectively hold some significance.

The Carved Skull is a Rare Artifact

As one can see, little is known about this skull. Unfortunately, its private ownership limits the ability of experts and academics to study it. While carved skulls are not unheard of, they are exceedingly rare. And one created with this level of skill and religious meaning is certainly a treasure.

Front view of the mysterious carved skull.

Front view of the mysterious carved skull. (Klemens)

Top Image: A side and front view of the mysterious carved skull. Source: Klemens

By Kerry Sullivan


Ivan. "The Mystery behind the Ancient Tibetan Carved Skull."  Ancient Code. Ancient Code, 09 Nov. 2016. Web.

Klemens. "Old Tibetan Skull, Richly Engraved."  Asian Art Forums. N.p., 13 Aug. 2011. Web.



It’s a beautifully carved skull. One that I'm probably more familiar with than most. Having been probably the first guy displaying and selling Tibetan skulls in America, I've seen a lot of weird stuff. Having also been perhaps the first guy selling headhunter trophies from the Kalinga, the Dayak, the Asmat and the Nagas, I feel like I'm somewhat of an authority on skulls. Let me say with certainty this is NOT a 300 year old skull. On the basis of what has this claim been made? I'm guessing the brown color. It's not uncommon for skulls to be coated with a brown stain to create this illusion. If the skull were indeed 300 years old, you would see greater wear in the carving. Even if it were not handle much, there would be further indications of shrinkage from extensive dessication. The author of this article does appear to have done their homework regarding the symbols carved on the skull. I didn't check each one, but I quickly recognized the accuracy of a few of the symbols. Some symbols are subject to interpretation because even in the region where this was made there is sometimes disagreement about how to present certain deities and symbols. More often, however, I find the makers of pieces like this aren't Buddhist monks or scholars, but artisans who may not even be practitioners of Buddhism. That's likely the case with this piece. It surely took a skilled artisan to produce such a remarkable carving. Sadly, my sources say skulls like this were produced in China in the 1960’s. How did I come upon this knowledge? About 5 years ago a fellow came to me with 5 of these. Curiously, he had the same traveling uncle story.  Each skull was unique, but, clearly from the same source as the skull in this article. I spoke with one of my sources, and sent him pictures. He had seen others years before and he had been told China was the source. Could his information be wrong? Perhaps. But between the two of us, we've seen hundreds of skulls and i have no reason to doubt him. I will say that skulls like this are very uncommon.. I've never seen any others besides the five i once saw, another I found online (and for sale for $4000 at the time), and this one.   These are some of my favorite carved skulls for their remarkable artistry. But they aren't 300 years old. THAT, I'll guarantee you!

Due to the vertical forehead, small mastoid processes, round orbits, low nasal bridge, broad nasal opening, lack of a nasal sill and the very obvious alveolar prognathism, the skull appears to be that of a Negroid female.

You can extract the pulp from a tooth by drilling a hole where it doesn't show, then tweaking out the contents of the pulp chamber.
Incidentally, the skull owner had an anterior open bite but this is unlikely to be significant.

Unfortunately, I think in order to do dental DNA the tooth has to be destroyed. I may be wrong, but I think they grind the tooth up to get at the pulp. On the other hand a forensic artist may be able to do a portrait. It might be difficult because there is no way to tell how much of the bone has been carved away in the process of decoration.


Has anyone tried getting DNA from one of the teeth? They can put it back in after the pulp is extracted. Then they could have a forensic pathologist do a facial reconstruction on paper, which can be pretty accurate.

Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

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