5,500-Year-Old Neolithic Cranial Amulets Shed Light on Ancient Belief System
In 1914, a Swiss amateur archaeologist, Ernest Roulin, approached the Museum of Science and Art in Ireland with an incredibly rare discovery – two ancient amulets made from fragments of human cranium. The amulets were dated to around 3,500 BC, during the Neolithic period, and have led to some fascinating conclusions regarding the practices and beliefs of our ancient ancestors.
Cranial Amulets: Exploring the Oval Shape and Perforation
The amulets are oval in shape and perforated towards one end, possibly for threading so that the item could be worn around the neck. The edges are well finished and rounded, which also suggests that they were worn or displayed as pendants.
The site of Roulin’s discovery in Neuchâtel dates to the Middle Neolithic period of western Switzerland (also known as the Cortaillod culture), and so far only a few such pendants have been discovered in Switzerland.
Ernest Roulin, and a number of archaeologists have suggested that the cranial fragments were removed from the deceased and then perforated and polished to form pendants, possibly to draw strength or protection from the world of the deceased or perhaps simply to commemorate past members of the community.
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However, another more gruesome hypothesis has been put forward by French anthropologist Paul Broca, which is that the skulls were perforated prior to the individual’s death through the practice of trephination, otherwise known as trepanning.
The perimeter of the hole in this trepanned Neolithic skull is rounded off by ingrowth of new bony tissue, indicating that the patient survived the operation. (Rama/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Spiritual Beliefs and Healing: The Ancient Notions Behind Trephination
Trephination is one of the first ever surgical practices and is known to have begun in the Neolithic era. It involves drilling a hole in the skull of a living person to cure illness such as convulsions, headaches, infections or fractures.
Although there is some merit to the technique and it is still practiced today for the relief of subdural hematoma, there is evidence to suggest that in ancient times people believed that illness was caused by a trapped spirit and that drilling a hole would allow the spirit to escape.
Broca believes that the skulls of those who survived trephination were believed to have magical properties, so after the patient died, fragments of the skull were cut out and worn as amulets. He also argued that prehistoric doctors gave the pendants to high status individuals, because the jewelry was thought to provide good luck, deflect evil spirits, and protect individuals and their families.
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Connecting with the Departed: The Broader Significance of Preserving Physical Connections
The Neolithic practice of using human remains for protection or luck is not unique to cranial amulets. Excavations at the Greek lakeside site of Dispilio revealed a perforated human molar, with a similar artifact discovered during this season’s excavation in Çatalhöyük, Anatolia.
Pendant and bead made from human teeth, Dispilio, Greece. (Museum of Ireland/BY-SA 2.0)
We can also see the Tibetan practice of using Kapala skull caps in ritual practice. A kapala, which translates to "skull" in Sanskrit, serves as a ceremonial vessel, resembling a skull cup, utilized in the rituals of Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Tantra, particularly in Vajrayana practices. Used in regions like Tibet, for higher tantric meditation to achieve a transcendental state of mind, these kapalas are frequently adorned with intricate carvings and adorned with precious metals and gemstones.
A kapala (Sanskrit for "skull") or skullcup is a cup made from a human skull used as a ritual implement in Tibet. (Suyash.dwivedi/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Tibetan carved kapala. (User Mountain/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Wearing or displaying pieces of the human body in this manner may appear unusual. However, some would argue that displaying a vessel or box containing human ashes on the mantelpiece, which is still practiced today, is not too dissimilar, and is a way of maintaining a physical connection with departed loved ones.
Top image: Two cranial amulets discovered in 1914 have offered insight into the ancient practices of European Neolithic society. Right: A kapala or skullcup, made from a human skull used for rituals in Tibet. Source: Left; Museum of Ireland/BY-SA 2.0, Right; Suyash.dwivedi/CC BY-SA 4.0
By: Joanna Gillan