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A rendering of the ancient skull created from CT scans.

An Iron Age Guardian of the Dead? Unusual Position of Cancer-Marked Skull Has Scientists Wondering

2,500 years ago a woman in Sicily lost her battle with cancer. The scars of the disease left marks on her skull and may help researchers solve the mystery why she was buried in such a way that she seemed to be guarding 50 other people who eventually followed her into the afterlife.

The woman’s skull was found in 2014 near the town of Baucina, in Sicily, Italy. Live Science reports it had been buried in an artificial cave. The “extremely peculiar position” – the face of the skull facing towards the grave’s co-inhabitants – piqued the excavators’ interest. Was this person meant to watching or protecting the others?

The 2,500-year-old skull of a woman with cancer was found facing into an artificial cave that holds at least 50 burials. (Roberto Miccichè, Giuseppe Carotenuto & Luca Sìneo)

The 2,500-year-old skull of a woman with cancer was found facing into an artificial cave that holds at least 50 burials. ( Roberto Miccichè, Giuseppe Carotenuto & Luca Sìneo )

It is believed the woman died when she was between the ages of 35 and 50 years old. 14 holes are evidence that the cancer had spread to her skull by then. Roberto Miccichè, study researcher and anthropology professor at the University of Palermo, told Live Science that the tomb containing the skull had been looted at some point in the past. All the grave goods were removed and the bones of the other individuals had been disturbed.

Nonetheless, Miccichè said, “We can assume that it [the skull] was found undisturbed in its original position, as grave robbers have used another way to get into the cave immediately above the entrance.”

A paper on the skull’s analysis was published in a special issue focusing on cancer in the International Journal of Paleopathology . In it, the authors explain that the skull is one of the oldest known examples of metastatic cancer (MC) in Western Europe. They were able to reach that conclusion through CT and 3D imaging, which they utilized for an analytical approach to paleopathology. The morphology of the lesions on the skull and the biological profile they found for the remains hints that the origins of the woman’s disease may have begun as breast cancer.

Four views of the skull. (Roberto Miccichè, Giuseppe Carotenuto & Luca Sìneo)

Four views of the skull. (Roberto Miccichè, Giuseppe Carotenuto & Luca Sìneo )

The researchers have put forward two possible explanations for the skull’s unusual position based on the evidence they have gathered through the digital image analysis and the state of the tomb.

First, the marks on her skull and other symptoms of the woman’s disease may have seemed strange and caused others in her community to associate her with death. Miccichè seems to be most convinced by this hypothesis, “Personally, I agree with this interpretation, as the clinical appearance of metastases on the skull [with its scattered holes] may have impressed the afterlife perception of people who lived beside the individual.”

The second possibility is that the woman had a high social status in her community and the cancer may have had nothing to do with the position of burial. As Miccichè said , “Another possibility could be connected to a particular role occupied in life within the ancient community by the person to whom the skull belonged. Both of these interpretations are very hard to prove, as we do not have many similar cases that we can use for comparison purposes.”

Thus the mystery continues, but so does the research. The scientists have decided to further explore ancient perspectives on death and illness in Sicily . This should give them a better understanding of the social and sacred context for the unusual burial of the Iron Age skull.

Dolmen created by an ancient tribe in Avola, east Sicily. (S. Piccolo/CC BY 3.0)

Dolmen created by an ancient tribe in Avola, east Sicily. (S. Piccolo/ CC BY 3.0 )

Top Image: A rendering of the ancient skull created from CT scans. Source: Roberto Miccichè, Giuseppe Carotenuto & Luca Sìneo

By Alicia McDermott

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