Earliest human skull-cups made in the UK

16 February 2011

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The earliest known examples of human skull-cups have been uncovered in the UK, Natural History Museum scientists report in the journal PLoS One today.

One of the human skull-cups made by ice age Britons 14,700 years ago

A human skull-cup made by ice age Britons 14,700 years ago from Gough's Cave. The process required great skill and knowledge of anatomy.

The 3 cups are made out of 14,700-year-old human skulls and were found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. They would have been used by ice age Britons and this is the first evidence of human skull-cup manufacture in the UK.

The human skulls belonged to 2 adults and 1 child and a precise replica of one of the adult skull-cups will go on display in the Museum from 1 March 2011 for 3 months.

Making containers out of human skulls may sound gruesome but the practice is well known worldwide. It has been documented from the Vikings and Scythians to recent peoples, and other potential skull-cups have previously been unearthed.

However, archaeological evidence of the details of this practice is extremely rare and this new research reveals for the first time the intricate process of skull-cup manufacture.

Gruesome but highly skilled
Percussion marks (circle) on frontal bone show damage caused by careful blow to remove facial bone

Percussion marks (in the circle) on frontal bone show the damage caused by a carefully placed blow to remove the facial bones from the skull. The white arrow shows cut marks.

Dr Silvia Bello, Museum fossil human expert (palaeoanthropologist) and lead author of the paper, explains, ‘We suspected that these early humans were highly skilled at manipulating human bodies once they died, and our research reveals just what great anatomists they were.

‘The cut-marks and dents show how the heads were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues shortly after death.

‘The skulls were then modified by removing the bones of the face and the base of the skull.

‘Finally, these cranial vaults were meticulously shaped into cups by retouching the broken edges, possibly to make them more regular. All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available.’

Cannibalism or ritual?

The team also found evidence that suggests some of the removed flesh was eaten. There were de-fleshing signs on the crania (skulls) associated with the removal of soft tissue, and extraction of bone marrow for nutritional purposes.

Dr Bello explains, ‘There is clear evidence that human remains at Gough’s Cave were treated in a complex way involving cannibalism and manufacture of skull-cups.

However, cannibalism doesn't seem to be the main purpose for the modifications of the skulls. At sites where evidence for cannibalism has been found, skulls are broken into pieces and there is often damage at the top of the skull from an impact.

‘At Gough’s Cave, there was clear determination to preserve the cranial vault as complete as possible. It is likely that this was part of some symbolic ritual and not mere necessity,’ says Bello.

Professor Chris Stringer, Museum human origins expert who was part of this research team, and helped excavate one of the skulls, says the amount of work that went into making the skull-cups suggests a special purpose rather than just nutritional, and comparing them to other recent finds, they may have been used to hold blood, wine or food during rituals.

The 3 human skull-cups from Gough's Cave were found with other fragments of human skull and mandible

The 3 human skull-cups from Gough's Cave were found with other fragments of human skull and mandibles (jaws)

He adds, ‘We do not know the exact circumstances for Gough’s. At one extreme were these individuals killed, butchered and eaten, with the skull-cups just the end of this event? Or could these people have been part of a group who had died singly or together, and were eaten, perhaps in a crisis situation, with the skull cups acting as a final tribute to the dead? We simply do not know…’

Who did the 3 skulls belong to?

The skull-cups came from 2 adults and a child about 3 years old. They were early modern humans, Homo sapiens, who in Europe were known as Cro-Magnons. They were skilled hunter-gatherers, tool-makers and artists, and developed complex ways of treating their dead.

New analysis

Two of the skull-cups were excavated from Gough’s Cave in the 1920s and one in 1987. The team carried out new examinations using state-of-the-art microscopy technology at the Museum, and conducted research on historic and recent accounts of skull-cup practices. They found that the skull-cups were modified in extremely similar ways to historic and ethnographic examples where they were used as containers or drinking-cups in ritualistic practices.

Using the latest radiocarbon dating techniques, the skull-cups were found to be about 14,700 years old, which means they are the oldest directly dated examples in the world. This new analysis could be applied to other specimens and means that there maybe older human skull-cup examples waiting to be recognised.

Gough’s Cave site
Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwest England is where the skull-cups were found

Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwest England is where the earliest human skull-cups were found

Gough’s Cave in southwest England is an important archaeological site, used since the 19th century. Archaeological excavations took place there between 1987 and 1992 by Museum and Nottingham University scientists, including the unearthing of much of the material used in this research and Britain's earliest cannibal discoveries.

Gough’s Cave was also home to a modern human known as Cheddar Man whose near-complete skeleton was uncovered there in 1903. He is dated to around 10,000 years ago.

A lot of research in Gough’s Cave has been part of the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) project, including these human skull-cup findings. In 2009, AHOB members revealed that Gough’s Cave was one of the first places humans lived when they returned to Britain after the peak of the last ice age. The AHOB team have just released a new book, The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain.

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Award-winning book, Homo britannicus

Homo britannicus - book by Museum palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer

Professor Chris Stringer's book explores the evidence and science that revealed the first Britons, through the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB).

Homo britannicus won best archaeological book 2008 at the British Archaeological Awards.

Find out more and buy Homo britannicus online