Collection of skull cups thought to be oldest of their kind

THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

Fri, Feb 18, 2011 - Page 6

A macabre collection of bone cups made from human skulls, unearthed in a cave in Somerset, England, are the oldest of their kind, researchers believe.

The extraordinary vessels are the handiwork of early modern humans, who used stone tools to prepare and finish the containers at the end of the last ice age, about 14,700 years ago. The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and one three-year-old child, were dug up several decades ago, alongside the cracked and cut-marked remains of animal and human bones at Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. They have now been re-examined using new techniques.

The human bones show clear signs of butchery, implying that the bodies were stripped for meat and crushed for marrow, before the heads were severed and turned into crockery.

There is no suggestion that the cups are trophies made from the remains of dead enemies. It is more likely that making skull cups was a traditional craft and that their original owners died naturally.

“It would probably take a half-day to prepare a skull cup,” said Silvia Bello, the paleontologist who led the study at the Natural History Museum in London. “Defleshing the skull was a skilled and lengthy business.”

Researchers said it was impossible to know how skull cups were used, but historically they have held food, blood or wine. Some are still used today in Hindu and Buddhist rituals.

“To us they can still seem a little strange,” Bello said. “I wouldn’t have my cereal in one.”

Writing in the online journal PLoS One, the scientists describe revisiting excavated remains from the cave, including a skull cup unearthed in 1987 by Chris Stringer, head of human origins research at the museum. Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.

“This is the first time we’ve understood how this material was processed and the fact that the skulls were not just cut and butchered, but were shaped in a purposeful way,” Stringer said. “They systematically shaped the skulls to make them into cups. They scalped them to remove the hair, they removed the eyeballs and ears, they knocked off the faces, then removed the jaws and chiseled away the edges to make the rims nice and even. They did a pretty thorough job.”

The cave dwellers were among the first humans to return to Britain at the end of the last ice age. The ages of the remains at Gough’s Cave suggest it was home to humans for at least 100 years. The cave is well-sheltered and, with skin flaps over the entrance, would have made a cozy home, Stringer said.

The residents were ideally placed to hunt passing deer and wild boar, while up on the local Mendip Hills reindeer and horses roamed.

In the 1900s, several hundred tonnes of soil were removed from the cave to open it up as a tourist attraction, a move that may have destroyed priceless ancient remains. The skull cups only survived because they were lodged behind a large rock.