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Dig reveals human skulls mounted on stakes

David Landes · 19 Sep 2011, 11:55

Published: 19 Sep 2011 11:55 GMT+02:00

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“We found two skulls that still had wooden stakes sticking out of them through a whole at the base of the skull,” archeologist Fredrik Hallgren, head of excavation with the Stiftelsen Kulturmiljövård Mälardalen (‘Cultural Preservation Society of Mälardalen’) told The Local.

The skulls and other artifacts, including bones of wild animals, were recovered at the Kanaljorden excavation site in the town of Motala in central Sweden.

According to results from carbon-14 dating techniques, the skulls and other items are estimated to be about 8,000-years-old.

“As far as we know, this discovery is unique in the world. Nothing has been found like this that is so old,” said Hallgren.

The mounted skulls were found with the stakes inserted the full length from the base to the top of the skull.

In another case a temporal bone of one individual identified as a female was found placed inside the skull of another woman.

Altogether Hallgren and his colleagues have identified skulls or skull fragments from 11 individuals, including both men and women and ranging in age from infants to middle-age.

The bones were found in what was a shallow lake during the early Stone Age which appears to have served as a ceremonial burial site.

“Clearly this lake was some sort of holy place for the people who lived here at the time,” said Hallgren.

Archaeologists are exploring two theories to explain why the human skulls were mounted on wooden stakes before being placed in the lake bed

“One thought is that it was part of some sort of secondary burial ritual where the skulls were removed from dead bodies that had initially been placed elsewhere,” said Hallgren.

“After the soft tissue had rotted away, the skulls were removed and placed on the stakes before being placed in the shallow lake.”

Another theory is that the mounted skulls are trophies brought back from battles with other settlers in the area.

“It may have been a way to prove one's success on the battlefield,” Hallgren explained.

Further analysis is currently underway to determine if the bones are remains of locals or people with a distant geographic origin. Using DNA and other laboratory techniques, archaeologists will also try to find out if the remains found at the site belong to a single family group or persons unrelated to one another.

Hallgren said that, as far as he knew, the discovery of human skulls mounted on stakes from this period of history was unprecedented.

Story continues below…

“There are other examples of human heads being mounted on stakes, but most of the finds are from the colonial period,” he said.

The Kanaljorden settlement excavation site has been ongoing since 2009 and is located about 500 metres from Motala’s central train station. The site dates from a part of the Stone Age known as the Mesolithic period, at which time the area around Motala was deemed an almost perfect place to live.

There was no agriculture in the area, however, with settlers instead surviving by fishing, hunting, and gathering.

Another dig site nearby in Motala gained worldwide attention in 2010 when archaeologists uncovered what was believed to be a Stone Age dildo.

The object, which measured 10-11 centimetres (4 inches) long and 2 centimetres in diameter, had been fashioned from a stag’s antler.

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

12:19 September 19, 2011 by Svensksmith
Bet they weren't repeat offenders.
12:33 September 19, 2011 by Zambezi Dan
Nope... they were Stone-Age Stakeholders.
12:34 September 19, 2011 by RobinHood

Swedish police say serial killer Thomas Quick has confessed to the "Motala skulls" murders and will be charged later today.
12:48 September 19, 2011 by jamesblish
Wow, what a weird find. My first thought was execution and/or war trophy.

Btw, according to the more literal christians, the people whose heads are on stakes lived only 2.000 years after the world was created. Amazing. I bet the other animal bones they dug up were dinosaur bones.
13:36 September 19, 2011 by Nemesis
This is a brilliant find.

I look forward to reading the first scientific publications in the scientific journals on this discovery.

I wonder what there dildo collections were like. Glad to see that people back then were relaxed about sex and not puritan lunatics such as we have running about today.

@ jamesblish

Actually it is 2000 years before creationists believe the world was created.
14:34 September 19, 2011 by jamesblish
OMG, my bad. Even better. These people could tell us what the world was like before it existed.
15:15 September 19, 2011 by Rick Methven
"a Stone Age lake bed in central Sweden"

Motala, is 600km south of Ostersund, the geographic centre of Sweden, either the central bit of Sweden got a lot bigger, or they mean SOUTHERN Sweden
15:35 September 19, 2011 by maxbrando
My goodness, real heathens - and with dildos, no less. Just like the ones Sweden has today. Remember, the girls need them.
15:45 September 19, 2011 by Svensksmith
Not the girls I know.
16:06 September 19, 2011 by jostein
A different land

16:19 September 19, 2011 by Tanskalainen
Stake tonight dear?
17:51 September 19, 2011 by Svensksmith
No thanks, it always gives me a headache.
18:28 September 19, 2011 by Åskar
@Rick Methven

It's kind of central on a North-South axis, though.
20:27 September 19, 2011 by StockholmSam
Nemesis, I agree this is interesting, but I would hesitate to project any broad generalizations about that society's views on sexuality, especially compared to ours, based on the discovery of what 'might' be a dildo. We have no idea about its history. There are dildos in millions of America's bedside tables but that does not mean the person, the community, or the national society in general is relaxed about sex.
21:35 September 19, 2011 by Tanskalainen
Were these skulls coated with taffy?
23:09 September 19, 2011 by Tysknaden
They will never find out, what this place was meant for. All that can be said: It was somehow important, and it was most likely connected to death.
23:20 September 20, 2011 by MarkinBoston
Dildos? I though sex wasn't invented until the 1960s.
02:10 September 21, 2011 by zeulf
and i quote " through a whole at the base of the skull " I wonder if that" wood" hurt ?
18:21 September 21, 2011 by jjoensuu
IMHO those skulls were probably not some "secondary burial" because who-ever was capable of placing them on stakes had an intention to communicate something to others. And that something in my opinion was fear.

Either as in "fear me, I am a great warrior" or "fear me, this may happen to you as well". Something like that.
02:04 September 22, 2011 by DavidtheNorseman
@jjoensuu - exactly

Or possibly here is what's left of Sven and Olaf who refused to pay their taxes :-)
17:22 September 22, 2011 by SockRayBlue
What? Human barbarism shocks you? Take a closer look at the subtleties of government and how it had developed through the millennia.
14:41 September 23, 2011 by tadchem
I would expect 'trophies' to be placed somewhere highly visible, so they could be easily seen by residents and casual visitors. That might be on the approaches to the village, not in the cemetery. These were more likely the equivalent of headstones (pun intended) for a pre-literate culture.

I would like to see the results of DNA matching to determine the racial affinities. Were they akin to Trojans?
16:52 September 23, 2011 by MichaelZWilliamson
My guess is that if we could pole them, first they had the chop, then they had the stake.
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