Research Article: Migrating Huns and modified heads: Eigenshape analysis comparing intentionally modified crania from Hungary and Georgia in the Migration Period of Europe

Date Published: February 2, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Peter Mayall, Varsha Pilbrow, Liana Bitadze, James J. Cray.


An intentionally modified head is a visually distinctive sign of group identity. In the Migration Period of Europe (4th– 7th century AD) the practice of intentional cranial modification was common among several nomadic groups, but was strongly associated with the Huns from the Carpathian Basin in Hungary, where modified crania are abundant in archaeological sites. The frequency of modified crania increased substantially in the Mtskheta region of Georgia in this time period, but there are no records that Huns settled here. We compare the Migration Period modified skulls from Georgia with those from Hungary to test the hypothesis that the Huns were responsible for cranial modification in Georgia. We use extended eigenshape analysis to quantify cranial outlines, enabling a discriminant analysis to assess group separation and identify morphological differences. Twenty-one intentionally modified skulls from Georgia are compared with sixteen from Hungary, using nineteen unmodified crania from a modern population as a comparative baseline. Results indicate that modified crania can be differentiated from modern unmodified crania with 100% accuracy. The Hungarian and Georgian crania show some overlap in shape, but can be classified with 81% accuracy. Shape gradations along the main eigenvectors indicate that the Hungarian crania show little variation in cranial shape, in accordance with a two-bandage binding technique, whereas the Georgian crania had a wider range of variation, fitting with a diversity of binding styles. As modification style is a strong signifier of social identity, our results indicate weak Hunnic influence on cranial modification in Georgia and are equivocal about the presence of Huns in Georgia. We suggest instead that other nomadic groups such as Alans and Sarmatians living in this region were responsible for modified crania in Georgia.

Partial Text

Intentional cranial modification is a process whereby the head of an infant is purposefully moulded by applying external pressure to achieve a desired shape. Parents or carers start the process as soon as an infant is born and continue it for the first three or four years of life while the cranial bones are still malleable. Once the bones have ossified the cranial vault assumes the intended shape and it is irreversibly modified. As a cultural practice intentional cranial modification was a worldwide phenomenon [1–3]. With independent occurrences spanning over ten millennia the motives for modification may have varied.

Previous studies assessing patterns of cranial modification have variously used visual approaches [41,42], linear measurements [43], angles between landmarks [44], arc and chord measurements [45], and Elliptical Fourier Analysis [46], to study the shape of modified and unmodified crania. These approaches have progressively allowed for a more objective characterisation of modified crania, validating the ability of the naked eye in initially differentiating modified from unmodified crania. Our aim in this study is firstly to quantitatively separate modified crania from unmodified crania and secondly to differentiate modified crania from Georgia and Hungary. All the modified crania in our study were of the annular or circumferential type produced by the application of a circular bandage around the head, although there are variations, where a second vertical bandage is applied to the circular one. The annular form of modification is most commonly encountered in West Asia, Europe, the Caucasus, Trans-Ural and Siberian regions [2,13,15,23,47–50]. As with Perez [9], we use a geometric morphometric approach of Procrustes superimposition to remove differences related to orientation, translation and scale, so as to highlight differences in the annular modification style. We do not expect cranial shape to be ethnically or geographically relevant because the Georgian and Hungarian populations in the Migration Period were ethnically diverse, and overall cranial shape is a poor indicator of geographic origin [51]. Unlike Perez [9], we use extended eigenshape analysis [52–54], because this method allows us to divide the cranial outline into segments and study the difference between similarly modified Georgian and Hungarian crania more closely.

Intentional cranial modification as a cultural practice has been noted in Georgia since the Bronze Age, but after about 400 AD the practice became far more common. As this coincides with the start of the Migration Period and the ascendancy of the Huns with their signature modified heads in the Carpathian basin in Europe, our study sought to compare modified cranial shape in Georgia and Hungary to determine whether the Huns or other contemporaneous groups were responsible for this cultural practice in Georgia.

The practice of intentional cranial modification was prevalent among the Indo-Iranian nomads such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and Gepids in the region of the Hungarian Plains, Eurasian Steppes and the Caucasus, prior to the arrival of Huns in Europe. After the arrival of Huns and with the start of the Migration Period the practice became far more common across Europe. Given the strong influence of the Huns on the events of the Migration Period, it is often assumed that modified skulls in Migration Period Europe signify the presence or the cultural influence of the Huns. Using extended eigenshape analysis in this study we found differences between the annular styles of modification utilized in Hungary and Georgia. The Hungarian modified crania were uniform in their pattern of modification and appear to have been modified using two bandages, which served to reduce cranial height. This strengthens our hypothesis that cranial shape was standardised in the Pontic steppe, which was the epicentre of Hunnic domination, so as to establish Hunnic identity. This was not the case in Georgia where modified crania in this study encompassed a range of variation from mild to extreme. This fits with the understanding that varied cultural influences distinct from those in Hungary operated simultaneously in Georgia. Our study finds little evidence for Huns or direct Hunnic influence in Georgia, but we suggest that existing nomadic groups such as the Alans and Sarmatians were responsible for the modified crania here. This conclusion also fits with the absence of textual references for Huns settling in Georgia, but can be accounted for by ample textual references for the presence of Alans and Sarmatians in the region. The Alans and Sarmatians were not immune to the influence of Huns, however. The Huns subjugated many, but not all, of them in the Hungarian plain. If there was any Hunnic influence in Georgia it was in the heightened uptake of the existing social custom of cranial modification in the Georgian nomadic groups.




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