Skulls, War and Medicine
12,000 B.C. Cheddar Gorge, Southwest England
An article from
target=”_blank”> the Guardian cites a
target=”_blank”> Plos One journal article that the
skull crafts were handiwork of humans from the last ice age,
about 14,700 years ago, possibly used as cups or bowls.
Under snow and ice, with very little food, these people may
have resorted to cannibalism as a way to stay alive.
10 years ago, researchers unearthed human bones in the
Cheddar Gorge. The bones of the butchered bodies look to be
drained of marrow- a source of nutrition. The skulls,
specifically, look to be more scrupulously modified with the
softer inside of the skull scraped out and the outer rim
smoothed for more uniform drinking. What were they used for?
Researchers say it’s impossible to know for sure, but some
possibilities: holding blood, wine or food.
"We assume it was some kind of ritual treatment. If there's
not much food around they may have eaten their dead to
survive. Perhaps they did this to honor the dead, to
celebrate their lives," said Chris Stringer, a scientist who
had unearthed skull cups before. Perhaps? I wonder how we
would ever understand the real reasons behind its use, how
we would know for sure it was an act of honor.
600 B.C. Scythia, Middle East
Often termed as ‘barbarous’, Scythians have been found to
scalp, decapitate and drink the blood of their enemies. The
historian Herodotus describes further: “Each of them cuts
off an enemy's head and takes it back home. He then skewers
it on a long wooden stave and sets this up so that the head
sticks up far above the house, often above the chimney. They
maintain that the head is put there as guardian of the whole
house. ... With the heads of their worst enemies they
proceed as follows: once they have sewn off everything below
the eyebrows, they carefully clean out the head. If the
owner is poor he will merely stretch calf-leather round it
and use it thus. But if he is rich, he will also line the
inside with gold and use it as a drinking vessel... When
guests arrive he will bring out these heads and say how they
...attacked him, and how he defeated them.”
Also, Herodotus mentions that the Scythians use each scalp
as a napkin; the more napkins = higher esteem in the
community. Read more of
target=”_blank”> Herodotus to get very detailed
descriptions. Very detailed.
In contrast to the brutal uses of the Scythians, it is known
that the Issedones people similarly decorated the skulls of
past relatives and used them as commemorative drinking cups.
1500s, British Isles
There is a renaissance tale of an adulteress forced by her
husband every night to drink from the gilded skull of her
lover. Also, apparently the skull of James IV of Scotland
was used as a flower pot in the English royal conservatory.
Medicinal purposes? Powdered skull was used by many,
including King Charles II on his deathbead. Belgian chemist
Jean Baptiste Van Helmont believed that letting the contents
of the skull marinate for awhile absorbs the body’s vital
powers: drink and be healthier. Also, it was quite popular
to use powdered skull to stop nosebleeds. Skull as medicine
was used as late as the early 1900s, as found in an article
target=”_blank”>Popular Science Monthly, stating that
epilepsy, among other diseases, could be cured by having the
ill drink from the skull of someone who had committed suicide.
An article from
Der Spiegel talks about how German pharmacist Johann
Schröder described how to make a medicine from the bodies of
humans. The instructions specifically called for the
"cadaver of a reddish man ... of around 24 years old," who
had been "dead of a violent death but not an illness" and
then laid out "exposed to the moon rays for one day and one
night" with, he noted, "a clear sky."
Delicious, right? and it totally would cure epilepsy. I’m
glad how far we’ve come medicinally. Not so proud of our
warfare, but still, it’s better than thinking that drinking
from the skulls of our enemies makes us stronger.
Using skeletons as decoration
Imagine entering a church and seeing a vast decorative array
of skulls, bones and skeletons; a chandelier made from a
human, and even a family crest fashioned from deceased
persons' remains. Opinion: beautiful? gross? inappropriate?
Kutna Hora, Czech Republic:
In 1278, King Otakar II of Bohemia sent Abbot Henry of the
Cistercian monastery in Sedlec to the Holy Land- he came
back with some dirt from Golgotha, where Christ was
crucified, which he then sprinkled it over the abbey
cemetery. Because of this Holy Land presence, the cemetery
became an incredibly popular burial site for the faithful
across Europe. Of course, the need for burial space exploded
during the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The church,
a small Christian chapel, was built in the 1400s and called
the Church of All Saints. The ossuary- a place or receptacle
for bones of the dead- is in the basement of the church.
Check out some photos here:
The ossuary was created to house unearthed graves during the
construction of the actual church, and the piling of the
skeletons was, according to legend, given to a half-blind
monk. In 1870, Czech woodcarver František Rint was employed
by the Schwarzenberg family to put the bone heaps in order.
They used approximately 40,000 human skeletons. That's a lot
Why did they use the human bones
to decorate the
church; is it breaking some kind of taboo? Why not just use
stone or wood carving? Why not simply (and presumably
politically correctly) bury
the bodies? Does the
sacredness of this church legitimise this odd uses of the
and IF you thought that
was interesting, here are
some other bone churches, though none live up to the
magnitude of Sedlec.
instead of decorative, this place
displays the dead. Kind of raw.
Similar to Sedlec, decorations
integrating bones and... normal kinds of decorating material
Mělník, Czech Republic:
more like orderly piles of
bones instead of elaborate design and structure
Per Contra= ????
Latin for on the other side, on the contrary. Alternative perspectives. I like to
keep an open mind.
People have grown up learning about the concept of death through a veil of
obscurity, fluffy details and made up stories told to children by their parents.
Pre-science, and even now, fantastical explanations are used to understand
the incomprehensible, give reasoning to inevitable life events and what
happens when someone passes on. What happens to a person when they die?
I have always taken interest in the study of different cultures, religions, and
history around the world. Humans have the least variability of DNA from
person to person, yet we all look completely different. Intriguing, right? Then
take into consideration each human’s explanations and understanding of
death and the beyond.
Pyramids, bog bodies, Aztec sacrificial rituals, mummification, skull goblets,
bone churches, cremation, above-ground cemeteries, and the Day of the
Dead are a few things to look forward to in this blog. I will explore the
differences, oddities, rituals and ideologies of different cultures across the
world and throughout history. It's more fun than school. Also, more