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

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

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V0 master 116This 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.

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.

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.

Journal pone 0152136 g002Lateral, 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.

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.”

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 Depiction of an Evenki shaman wearing antler headdress (after Witsen 1785, 655).

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.