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The truly ancient site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey continues to offer up secrets, with the latest being the discovery of modified human cranium fragments that are suggestive of a ‘skull cult’. A new archaeological paper, available freely online (“Modified human crania from Göbekli Tepe provide evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult“), reveals that a number of skulls were found to be carved and painted.

According to Ars Technica, German Archaeological Institute paleopathologist Julia Gresky and her colleagues…

…found three skulls scored with deep cuts made by sharpened stones. The carvings bisect the center of the face, continuing up the forehead and all the way around to the back of the skull. One skull, painted with red ochre, also had a hole drilled in the top. A likely explanation is that the skull cultists were tying the skulls with cords, then threading another cord through holes in the skull, in order to suspend them from the stones.

None of these individuals died from their skull carvings. Evidence suggests the skulls were defleshed and carved shortly after the individuals died. There’s no telling whether the skulls belonged to venerated ancestors or were trophies from defeated enemies.

…Gresky and her fellow researchers point out that carvings of headless people and severed heads are common themes on pillars at Göbekli Tepe. Some images show animals holding human heads, while others show headless men.

The full paper has plenty more detail for those interested. For instance, while Göbekli Tepe does not seem to have been used for human burial, excavations nevertheless found a considerable number of fragmented human bones, with most being parts of the skull (408 out of the 691 fragments found). Roughly 10% of those skull fragments (40) carry “cut marks from defleshing activities” and “additional signs of skeletal processing (decapitation) are represented by cut marks on two (of just seven) cervical vertebrae so far discovered at the site”.

‘Defleshing’ of the skull was indicated by clusters of cut marks in areas where muscles are attached on skulls. Researchers distinguished the intentional, ritual carvings from marks made by defleshing by their depth, and the multiple strokes used to create them.

Skull fragments from Gobekli Tepe
It seems likely that the modifications were made shortly after death, as there was no sign of healing, even though the sharp edges of the cut marks on the skull suggest that the bone was cut when still elastic (therefore ‘freshly dead’).

Along with the preponderance of skull fragments, other archaeological evidence that is indicative of a ‘skull cult’ include…

…depictions carved into and from limestone, for example, the low relief of a headless ithyphallic figure on the broad side of a T-shaped monolith in building D, the comparatively frequent finds of carved human heads removed by force from larger statues, as well as sculptures of carnivores and raptors holding what could be severed human heads. A remarkable find is a limestone statue, referred to as the “gift bearer,” a kneeling figure carrying a human head in its hands, the eyes and nose of which are discernible.

Note that the suggestion of a ‘skull cult’ does not simply mean that they were connected to ancestor veneration – it could have a more negative association. That is, it could be connected to ritual mutilation of enemies’ skulls – or as the archaeologists term it “negative funerary rites”.

Or perhaps it’s neither and the answer is something else entirely…your thoughts?