The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A brief history of displaying opponents' severed heads

The Gauls' technique may have kept their grisly trophies from stinking.

Human remains found at the Le Cailar archaeological excavation site in France. (Fouille Programmée Le Cailar)

In the aftermath of a tough competition, cherish the little blessings: No one has lopped off the losers’ heads, slathered them in an embalming fluid and mounted them for all to see.

It was another story in France, 2,300 years ago. A new study describes the art of the severed head as practiced by the Celts, an Iron Age tribe, living in the southern Gaul region. Archaeologists recently detected chemical traces of conifer resin on skull bones at a Gaul site, suggesting the Celts preserved the heads for prolonged showings. Heads, after all, have unique power, according to cultures across space and time.

Heads act “as a shorthand for the whole being,” said Ian Armit, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester who, as an expert in Bronze and Iron Age violence, has studied prehistoric headhunting in Europe. (He was not a part of the new Gaul study.) No other body part represents a person like the head. It is the center of vision, language and thought. Vastly different human cultures recognize its symbolic power: “The head is important in societies that have absolutely no connection with each other, geographically or chronologically,” Armit said.

Plus, “it’s a bit easy” to cut off a head, said Réjane Roure, an archaeologist at Paul Valéry University at Montpellier in France and author of the study published Wednesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Severed heads were a fixture on the London Bridge and elsewhere in Britain as recently as the 17th century. For nearly three decades, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s head peered from Westminster Hall, according to popular account. The English Civil War general was three years dead before his decapitation: In 1661, Cromwell was “posthumously executed” — his corpse dug up, hanged, the head struck from his body and stuck on a spike.

The earliest hints of mounted heads in the European archaeological record occurred 8,000 years ago in Sweden. Stockholm University archaeologist Anna Kjellström and her colleagues recently excavated old skulls from a southern Swedish lake. Two of the skulls, as the scientists described in a paper published in February, had wooden stakes still inside the bones, fragments from when they were mounted. To Kjellström’s knowledge, she said, those skulls are the oldest evidence of head displays in Europe.

Those skulls were mounted near water. One cranium had its brain preserved, meaning it must have quickly been submerged in an oxygen-poor environment, “probably underwater,” Kjellström said. The other skulls “may have been mounted above the water surface for a time.”

The authors of the Swedish study were cautious when interpreting the results. The adult skulls showed signs of trauma, but in many cases those injuries had healed. The blows could have been accidents, the authors say, so it is unclear if these were war trophies. But the signs of mounting are a departure from other nearby funeral habits. “The placement and treatment of the crania are distinctly different from the burial tradition” in the hunter-gatherer graves located 330 feet to the north, Kjellström said.

“Whether this should be understood as intended for display is questionable, since the pole was very short and the head may barely have extended above the pool in which it was placed,” said Rick Schulting, a University of Oxford archaeologist, “or at least done so only occasionally when water levels were low.”

Archaeologist Michelle Bonogofsky, editor of the textbook “The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head: Decapitation, Decoration, and Deformation,” said it is tough to know what purposes the heads served. As she told Slate in 2011: “We’re not sure if they were using them to decorate, or if they were saying, ‘This is our portrait of Mom that we’re going to keep around.’ ”

Until the Iron Age, displays are sparse, Schulting said, with possible examples of the remains of Bronze Age children in Scotland’s Sculptor Cave. By the time of the Gauls, however, the records firm up. “There is more secure evidence of display of human heads in later prehistory,” he said.

Greek philosophers like Strabo made contemporary accounts of the Gaul tribes' penchant for heads. The Gauls embalmed heads from enemies “of high repute,” Strabo wrote about 2,000 years ago, “in cedar-oil . . . they would not deign to give them back even for a ransom of an equal weight of gold.”

At the archaeological site, named Le Cailar, Roure and her colleagues uncovered about 50 human heads, smashed into a total of 2,500 pieces. They theorize these heads were probably battle trophies, though Roure mentioned many cultures also kept their ancestors’ heads, and it was possible the Celts did, too. Either way, the tiny fragments provided enough biochemical evidence for a plant-based embalming resin. This study “is the first confirmation that the Greek and Roman texts are very precise” on the subject of severed heads, Roure said.

The Greeks spoke of cedar oil, but the embalming materials may have come from other local pine trees. Pine resin is pungent, which would mask bad smells and preserve “the severed heads a long time, to show the power of the warrior,” Roure said.

Modern scholars are aware ancient chroniclers were frequently “prone to exaggerating,” Armit said. But, in this instance, the detection of resin in the skulls allows modern scholars to place “a little more trust in classical sources than we might otherwise.”

Halfway across the globe, in Mexico, a recent find confirmed another old headhunting practice. Spanish soldiers, who invaded Aztec Mesoamerica along with Hernán Cortés in the 1500s, described a “tower of skulls.” One soldier suggested he saw 100,000 skulls in a single display. Scientists who excavated a rack of skulls near Mexico City tallied 700 skulls. This concentration of heads indicated the skull racks could have, perhaps, numbered in the thousands.

Head displays have touched almost every corner of the world, Armit said, though some cultures seem more taken with the idea than others. In certain headhunting societies, collecting the heads was not a byproduct of warfare — it was the primary motivation. In the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, a headhunting craze in the 19th century had a “major impact” on local populations, Armit said.

In 1942, Ralph Morse, a 25-year-old photographer for Life magazine, snapped an image of the head of a Japanese soldier mounted on a Japanese tank at Guadalcanal. The caption published in the magazine suggested Americans had impaled the head. Morse, years later, recalled the Japanese may have set it on the tank as a trap to lure curious U.S. soldiers. A severed head, 8,000 years of human history shows, always commands attention.

Read more:

Surgeons want to transplant a human head — really — and a Russian is offering his

A 430,000-year-old whodunit

A 3,000-year-old glass head deepens one of the Bible’s oldest mysteries