‘Strange, elongated skulls reveal medieval Bulgarian brides were traded for politics’ reads a Sciencemag.org headline. More conservative, National Geographic captions the same news as: ‘Pointy Skulls Belonged to ‘Foreign’ Brides, Ancient DNA Suggests’. Both of these, along many others, actually point (no pun intended) to a recent PNAS study in which ‘genomic data from 41 graves from archaeological sites in present-day Bavaria in southern Germany mostly dating to around 500 AD‘ was generated. Among these skeletons, several display artificial skull deformation. The authors conclude that based on a comparison between the generated genomic profiles and modern reference populations, ‘the most likely origin of the majority of these women [displaying artificial skull deformation] was southeastern Europe, resolving a debate that has lasted for more than half a century‘.
But what debate are they alluding to, and is the genomic material the best (i.e. most useful) kind of evidence to settle it? Before delving further, I should just like to leave this in reference to the media captions of exotic Bulgarian and Romanian brides:
(I was also relieved they did not go with the Romanian brides in the media headlines)
Moving further, this PNAS study threw me back to my beginnings in anthropology. I was 20 years old, and enthusiastic about learning about the analysis of human remains, so I went to visit the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ (in Bucharest). After climbing semi-lit winding stair, the first thing one saw upon entering the main hall was a large old fashioned display case of elongated, artificially deformed skulls, discovered in Romania. They were exhibiting both the geographical spread of the phenomenon, and also the variety of styles.
The display at the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’
According to Nicolae Miritoiu, the Romanian specialist on these skulls, there are 61 places in Romania in which 155 deformed skulls have been discovered. Out of these 130 are clearly confirmed as intentional artificial deformations, and only 111 could be studied (read more in the extended summary of his PhD thesis: here). A significant number of these were kept at the Institute of Anthropology. After a first encounter with their strangeness – regardless of how much you have heard before, upon seeing them the viewer gets drawn in, wondering about how it must have been to poses such a skull, and maybe even why would several cultures entertain this idea? – these skulls became part of my daily life at the Institute.
But their presence there also brings back to my mind the image of Dr Miritoiu, who was the head of the Paleoanthropology department at the time (closing retiring), a bearded man, sitting quietly and pensive behind his desk (overrun by papers & bones), smoking & looking through his standard handwritten 1/2 page notes, with the department’s cat sitting next to him.
(Source image: ziarullumina.ro, hieronymus.ro)
We overlapped for a couple of years only, during which time we probably only exchanged a handful of words, and to this day I am not sure what he thought of me. But my early time in the Institute also coincided with a demise of a certain kind of doing archaeology/anthropology, embodied by several professors at the University as well: an encyclopedic knowledge of all material that is available out there, with detailed understanding of its inner workings. There were certain limitations to their interpretation, which later scholarship maybe overcome, but at the same time regardless one talked about Roman pottery, deformed skulls, or Bronze Age metal swords, interpretation was multi-varied, and grounded in material, always having at hand comparative/contrasting examples from other geographic/cultural contexts. Of course this is not just the appanage of these older generations, but when I hear the words the ‘old school’ it is them that I have in mind- very similar to Vere Gordon Childe’s performance on the famous Animal, Vegetal, Mineral? 1956 show.
So getting back to the recent aDNA news on the ‘elongated’ skulls, my further comments are written with this in mind, the milieu in which I have grown as a researcher. It is not my aim to discuss the genetic data per se (as that falls outside both my expertise, and current focus), just its historical interpretation. At the same time, I do not have an extensive knowledge on either the artificially deformed skulls, or the migratory era – I am sure other colleagues of mine are better equipped to do that (including my Romanian colleagues)-, so I am not trying to settle the debate myself, but simply to raise a couple of reflection points.
In short, I think this new PNAS study reads like an over simplification of the discussion, interspersed with occasional anachronistic terminology.
By comparing genetic profiles of early Medieval skeletons from Bavaria, with contemporary populations, the authors claim to have finally identified the origin of these people. At the same time, they set up to answer the question: ‘whether the observed East Asian ancestry in both our late 5th/early 6th century Bavarian and Serbian samples is consistent with an assumed ultimate Hunnic origin of skull deformation in both eastern and western Europe‘, and then based on one 2nd century discovery from Romania (quoted via Williams H, Sayer D., Hakenbeck S (2009) “Hunnic” modified skulls: Physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations. Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages,eds Williams H, Sayer D, Exeter Univ Press, Exeter, UK, pp 64–80) , they conclude that:
When coupled with archaeological evidence of skull deformation in Romania as early as the 2nd century, it perhaps suggests any Hunnic or earlier Sarmatian-like influence in spreading the tradition of ACD from the Steppe may have been low, and their genetic impact even lower.
I agree that the topic they have chosen is an interesting one, and that it can be useful to see if new methods can bring fresh light to old problems. However, the historical conclusion requires a more complex perspective, given the nature of the material at hand. To start with, ethnicity is not written in bones – though the genetic profile might give you some haplogroups indications, their cultural expression is beyond its reach. The terms Hun, Sarmatian, Bavarian etc. are first and foremost cultural identities, which might/might not overlap distinct genetic profiles. If we think otherwise, we get back to seeing the equation People=Skeletons=Pots.
Furthermore, if we think of the early 2-3rd centuries skeletons with artificially deformed heads from Romania, mentioned in the article, they have been interpreted as being of sarmatian origin- though in some instances, other have challenged this interpretation (see Daniel Spanu, Aculturaţie la est de Carpaţi din perspectiva necropolei din secolele II-III de la Poieneşti). But who exactly where these Nord-Pontic Sarmatians is still a matter of debate, and in the local arguments researchers are mobilising literary, epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence.
Labeling ethnicity is always a tricky matter, especially in a period in which populations were in constant flux, and new migratory waves coming into Europe. Thus, cultural practices of laying mirrors in women burials, certain types of weapons with men, the use of beads and amulets (traditional material culture labeled as of Sarmatian influence) become part of wider arguments that include topics such as Roman trade networks, political organisation, acculturation, craftsmanship etc. In a patchy and mostly unclear historical landscape, the question of how were various groups interacting, how can one discriminate between them, and the way in which new forms of sociality and culture emerged in the process are the interesting- and difficult- questions to answer.
Therefore, in this dense array of contradictory or fragmentary sources, a single dataset point (e.g. a skeleton from 2 century Romania), or one single method (e.g. DNA testing) cannot unfortunately settle ‘once and for all’ such complex historical matters.
Secondly, the term Romanian or Bulgarian are culturally connotated and historically circumscribed: the formation of the contemporary Romanian people is a long process, involving the integration of Dacian, Roman, Slavic, and of other influences, and one can’t use the term as such until later than the period covered by this study. Therefore, saying that a skeleton was found in Romania does not really say much about its ethnic or cultural affiliation- it might be local, or it might not be- in itself this should be the start of an investigation. Furthermore, the Bulgarians were a migratory population coming into Europe around the 7th century AD, thus a century later then these Bavarian skulls. Even if the authors actually meant the territory of Bulgaria, the Slavs are starting to settle in the region starting with the 6th century AD- still at the end of the interval covered by the Bavarian skulls. Beyond this anachronistic terminology, one might also raise the question: if the investigated areas have undergone quite significant change since the 5-6 centuries, what is the relevance of comparing the Medieval genetic data with contemporary populations? And if in spite of that the results really show a clear genetic link between the 2 regions, then are the authors making the claim that the subsequent populations movements in the Balkan area did not actually have a marked genetic effect- thus pushing for a reinterpretation of our history of the region?
For these reasons, it seems that the article is combining genetic profiling, with some questionable historical conclusions. As puzzling are the phrases presented in the media, and attributed to Susanne Hakenbeck: “Nobody thought that marriage and kinship had a really important function in the period“. I suspect these have been taken out of context, as otherwise it is quite common knowledge (and definitely part of my own training as a historian), that marriage allegiances were a staple at the time, and that peoples traveled a lot- and mixed cemeteries throughout the area during the first centuries AD are a testimony to that.
In conclusion, similar to any new science study, this should stir both enthusiasm and a critical reflection: enthusiasm for how many new questions we can now ask, and also for having new kinds of data that we can integrate into older historical debates. But also a critical attitude towards their limitations, and the perils of simplification when using just one kind of data.
Going back to my former director and his generation, we should always bear in mind that the research we are currently doing is part of a longer intellectual debate, from which we might learn valuable lessons. Otherwise, we might end up like Indie: with the results of a cool looking new technology in his hands, but not really sure how to link it with other human knowledge.