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Left: Upper part of the body of grave 43 during excavation. The girl had an artificially deformed skull, was place in a grave with a side niche and richly equipped with a necklace, earrings, a comb and glass beads. The girl belonged to a group of people with a non-local origin and similar dietary habits, which appeared to have arrived at the site about 10 years after its establishment. (Wosinsky Mór Museum)         Right: Artificially deformed skull of an adult woman. Permanent binding during childhood caus

Cemetery of Deformed Skulls Reveals Chaos After the Fall of Rome

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Researchers studying deformed skulls from an ancient cemetery in Hungary tell of a multicultural transition between locals and migrant Romans.

Established around 430 AD and abandoned about 470 AD, Mözs-Icsei dülő cemetery, in the settlement of Mözs near Szekszárd in the Pannonia region of present-day Hungary, was created in the late Roman period at the beginnings of Europe's Migration Period when the barbarian Huns invaded Central Europe forcing the Romans to abandon their Pannonian provinces and retreat from modern-day Western Hungary.

A new study marrying scientific isotope analysis with biological anthropology has illustrated the site's previously-excavated burials, which determine that seeking refuge from the Huns, new foreign groups arrived in Pannonia and integrated with the remaining local Romanized population. These migrant waves sparked a period of rapid-onset, and chaotic cultural transitions and the deformed skeletons recovered from Mözs-Icsei dülő cemetery held important clues about life and death during this turbulent time.

Modern Multidisciplinary Sciences Penetrate Ancient Multicultural Community

The new paper was published April 29, 2020 in the open-access journal  PLOS ONE  by Dr. Corina Knipper from the Curt-Engelhorn-Center for Archaeometry , Germany, István Koncz, Tivadar Vida from the Eötvös Loránd University , Budapest, Hungary and colleagues. The authors first conducted an archaeological survey of the 5th century cemetery, and then they combined isotope analysis with biological anthropology to interpret the burials.

What the pair of researchers found was a “remarkably diverse” ancient community consisting of two or three generations (96 burials total) of three distinctly different cultural groups. The first was the founding, or local, group who were buried in brick-lined Roman style graves, the second group comprised of 12 foreigners who arrived about a decade after the founders, and the third were a later culture, who blended Roman and various foreign traditions.

The brick-lined burial of Grave 54 represents late Antique traditions, which prevailed among the supposed founder generation of the cemetery. (Corina Knipper et al. / PLOS ONE)

The brick-lined burial of Grave 54 represents late Antique traditions, which prevailed among the supposed founder generation of the cemetery. (Corina Knipper et al. / PLOS ONE )

Straightening Out Deformed Skulls

The researchers think that the second group of 12 foreigners most probably established the ritual burial tradition of burying the deceased with elaborate grave goods, and also the practice of “cranial deformation,” which was found in 51 skeletons of adult males, females, and children.

Artificially deformed skull of an adult woman. Permanent binding during childhood caused the elongation of the braincase and the depressions in the bone. (Balázs G. Mende / Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Artificially deformed skull of an adult woman. Permanent binding during childhood caused the elongation of the braincase and the depressions in the bone. (Balázs G. Mende / Hungarian Academy of Sciences )

Artificial cranial deformation, or modification, is commonly called head flattening, or head binding. This ancient form of body alteration in which a human child's skull is deformed with blocks of wood bound to the skull under a constant force, was practiced on every continent of the prehistoric world. However, Mözs-Icsei dülő cemetery represents one of the largest concentrations of this ancient aesthetic cultural phenomenon in the region; a practice that was generally reserved for societal elites.

Isotopic Strontium Dietary Analysis Held The Answers

Buckle in, it’s time for the science bit: according to researcher Doug Dvoracek from the Centre of Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia , who was not involved in the new study, strontium isotopic ratios are widely used as indicators of provenance, residential origins and migration patterns of ancestral humans, in an archaeological context, where it provides “links to the land where food was grown or grazed.”

A number of deformed skulls used in the study. (PLOS ONE)

A number of deformed skulls used in the study. ( PLOS ONE )

The two researchers data showed the strontium isotope ratios measured on skeletons at the Mözs-Icsei dülő cemetery were “significantly more variable” than the prehistoric burials and animal remains excavated at other archaeological sites in the same geographic region in the Carpathian Basin. In conclusion, the scientists say their isotopic analysis indicates most of Mözs' adult population had lived elsewhere during their childhood and had migrated to Pannonia as teen and adults.

Millet Assured Thick and Strong Deformed Skulls and Bones

Moreover, carbon and nitrogen isotope data attests to what the scientists say were “remarkable contributions of millet” in the human diet. Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses that were grown as cereal crops or grains for human food and fodder. What ancient cultures who grew millets observed, but didn’t know why they had stronger bones, bigger muscles, tougher warriors and fitter farmers, because not only is millet gluten-free, but it also has high levels of protein, fiber, and antioxidants contents.

In the 5th century, the forested mountain ranges and resource rich agricultural plains of what is today Hungary made this region a choice destination for fleeing Romans and other asylum seekers and refugees displaced by expanding Germanic armies.

And while archaeological and anthropological research in Hungary will continue, for now, the researchers have established that after the decline of the Roman Empire at least one community briefly emerged in Pannonia comprising local and Roman incomers who not only shared the same geographical space, but they blended and infused their burial rituals and traditions into a new multicultural system of interment.

Top image:  Left: Upper part of the body of grave 43 during excavation. The girl had an artificially deformed skull, was place in a grave with a side niche and richly equipped with a necklace, earrings, a comb and glass beads. The girl belonged to a group of people with a non-local origin and similar dietary habits, which appeared to have arrived at the site about 10 years after its establishment. ( Wosinsky Mór Museum )         Right: Artificially deformed skull of an adult woman. Permanent binding during childhood caused the elongation of the braincase and the depressions in the bone. (Balázs G. Mende / Hungarian Academy of Sciences )

By Ashley Cowie

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