Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ritual Headwear From the Stone Age

Reconstruction of Mesolithic headdress
(Photo:  Jonathan Cardy, Wikimedia Commons)
One type of clothing that is generally agreed to be important (even by scholars who are not historical costume specialists) is clothing used for ritual, especially religious ritual.

Popular Archaeology, an online archaeology magazine, posted an article last year about the process of reconstructing a type of Stone Age headpiece made from a deer's skull. You can read the article here, and can download the formal research paper from PLOS ONE here.  Though only limited information about the manufacture of these headdresses was gleaned, the result is a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of early humans.

Archaeologists at the University of York have been studying 24 deer-skull headpieces originally found in 1891 at an Early Stone Age site called Star Carr, in Yorkshire, England. These 24 headpieces represent about 90% of the known deer-skull headpieces found in Europe from that time period.

The analysis of the finds revealed physical evidence that the process for creating one of these headdresses must have gone roughly as follows:
  1. Damp clay was packed around the parts of the skull that were not to be removed, and the head was placed in a bed of embers.  As the clay cracked and fell off, it was replaced with new clay and the process continued until the unprotected areas of the head were charred.  
  2. The skull was hammered lightly around what would be the front of the headpiece to shape the opening, and harder to remove bony sections that weren't desirable for its new purpose.
  3. The base of the skull was opened, and the brain removed, cutting the meninges in the process.  (The resulting cut marks are visible on the surviving headdresses.)
The rest of the process could not be perfectly recreated, because it could not be discerned whether or how much of the skin was removed.  In addition, much of the antler had removed from the skulls, and it is not clear when this occurred. At least two possible theories might explain what happened. One is that the unwanted antler had been removed while the headdress was being made, possibly to make it easier to handle during manufacture, or to make it easier to wear.  This theory is viable because Stone Age red deer were larger than modern deer, and it might have been necessary to remove most of the antler to make the headdress wearable.

The other theory is that the extra antler was removed after the headdress had been used and was being discarded, so that the pieces of antler could be used for other things, such as "barbed projectile tips for hunting and fishing."  The cuts found on the headdresses were of such a shape as to indicate that the pieces removed from the headdress could easily have been reused for other objects.  Unfortunately, the analysis could not confirm whether the antler pieces had been removed before or after the headdress was used, and thus it could not be established which theory was correct.

If the latter theory is correct, though, it suggests an attitude about a piece of clothing used for religious ritual that is vastly different from the Christian one of reverence and preservation.  Perhaps Stone Age humans treated religious paraphernalia as disposable, or alterable without any potential sacrilege or consequence, after the god had departed.  That would be evidence of the culture of Stone Age England apart from the headdress itself, and that's what makes it exciting, and potentially useful.  We can only hope for future finds with better evidence of the headpiece creation process. 

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