Shamans packed skulls with clay and burnt brains inside them in prehistoric Europe

By Culture24 Reporter | 16 April 2016 | Updated: 15 April 2016

Modified red deer heads from the Early Holocene provide the earliest known evidence of shamanic costume. Now archaeologists have recreated them

A photo of an archaeologist repacking damp clay onto burnt crania, containing cooked brain, for further firing
This is how a burnt crania, containing cooked brain, looked after archaeologists had repacked it with damp clay for further firing© Dr Aimee Little
The hunter-gatherers of north-western Europe 11,000 years ago had to work hard to make the headdresses they seem to have favoured. They would split the antlers of red deer and cut away the lower jaw, leaving the top part still with its teeth, eyes, skull and ample bone.

A photo of an archaeologist repacking damp clay onto burnt crania, containing cooked brain, for further firing
Placing the clay-covered crania onto a fire pit© Dr Aimee Little
Then they would pack clay onto the part of the skull they wanted to keep, throw it on a fire for a while – loosening the areas they hadn’t packed – and take it off to remove the brain and other bits.

A photo of a set of prehistoric deer antlers
A virtual reconstruction of the frontlet, based on surface scans© Dr Aimee Little
Most of the headdresses were found during the 1940’s by archaeologists at Star Carr, and a further three, discovered last year, give the Yorkshire site 90 percent of the artefacts like these in early prehistoric Europe. Now they’ve recreated the techniques which might have been applied by practical shamans, using flint blades, hammerstones and flames to fashion these costumes of ritualism.

A photo of a set of prehistoric deer antlers
Lateral, frontal and posterior oblique views are shown© Dr Aimee Little
Professor Nicky Milner, a co-director of the excavations, has been part of an international team of researchers including UK universities and experts in Leiden and Groningen. “This is the only site in Britain where they are found,” she says. “There are only a few other headdresses known from Germany.

A photo of a set of prehistoric deer antlers
The frontlet was reconstructed and visualised using imaging processing software© Dr Aimee Little
“These headdresses are incredibly rare finds in the archaeological record. This work into how they might have been made has given us an important glimpse into what life was like 11,000 years ago.”

A photo of a drawing showing a shaman wearing a headdress in prehistoric times
A depiction of an Evenki shaman wearing antler headdress (after Witsen) (1785)© Dr Aimee Little
The antlers were removed to make the heads lighter, and were later recycled or turned into barbed projectile tips for hunting and fishing. More than 200 tips have been found at Star Carr. Laser scanning has shown that cut marks were made on both sides of each skull.


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More from Culture24's coverage of Star Carr

"That's what archaeology is all about": Mesolithic shaman's necklace in Yorkshire could be earliest art from period found in Britain

"It looked pretty normal at first": Young archaeologist recalls finding 11,000-year-old pendant at Star Carr

Archaeologists unearth Britain’s oldest house at Scarborough Stone Age dig
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