Archaeological evidence for the Iron Age practice of embalming your enemies' severed heads with resin and displaying them

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Hmmm…perfect idea for my office!


The ultimate conversation piece.


I guess IKEA wan’t a thing back then.


“What this old thing? Funny you should ask!”

Tried to find an appropriate image of an embalmed head on a shelf. Thankfully I failed. As a consolation, a hauntingly beautiful song with a video involving a disassociated head.


In the “Táin bó Cúailgne” (The Cattle-raid of Cooley), a famous epic in Irish, they describe a practice of taking the brain of one’s enemy and mixing it with lime to create a brain-ball. Obviously that is not the same as described in the article, but makes me wonder how the practice varied. Perhaps the Irish lacked the skill or the ingredients necessary for embalming.


Come to think of it, Jeremy Bentham’s head is a famous “conversation piece” of that nature. He actually wanted it to be put on display too:


Ingredients were plentiful. The bogs contained all the natural preservative one would need. Preserving food in the bogs wasnt uncommon at the time of the Táin bó.


Yes, but to keep it preserved you would have to keep it in the bog. You couldn’t go showing it to your friends and boasting about it, which was the whole point.


It may be that some of the skulls come from revered ancestors as well as enemies. They were displayed within the city walls, for benefit of the townspeople – not outside, as an intimidation tactic aimed at enemies.

If we’re going to speculate, I would guess that they were displayed “for the benefit of the townspeople” because they were criminals. As an example to others. And that is a practice that survived into the 17th century.

Tell me this doesn’t just belong in every D&D campaign ever!

At last you have come face-to-face with your archnemesis, Baron Toothclaw. “Come in,” he murmurs with an elegant wave of his hand, toward a shelf filled with preserved heads. “Oh, those? Those are your father and your brothers.” An evil smile wreathed his pinched face…


The Celts were a pretty large group of peoples spread over a huge geography, and large spans of time.

The Ulster Cycle is many centuries later than the Roman contact these details come from. And from what I remember are works describing a semi-legendary past composed in the Insular Celtic period. So different people, speaking a different language, centuries removed from the people covered here.

They don’t really accurately depict the practices of either the period they depict (which does roughly coincide with the Gallic Wars), or the periods when they were composed. And I think Tain is one of the youngest bits of the cycle. Both in terms of when it was written down and when it may have been composed.

So even if you could assume accuracy. And even if you could assume a tight continuity between two peoples, in different places, speaking different languages. You’re still talking about a spread of several hundred years to a millennium.

Though I think there’s evidence for the “head hunting” in the British Isles, including Ireland at around the same time as these heads. Both from the Romans and archeology.

The written references we have describe this as a ritual display/collection of the heads of enemies. And we have a lot of evidence of various forms of human sacrifice, and the ritualized display of human remains. Including significant ancestors. From different Celtic people’s, across a wide spread of time.

So that’s not so much speculation. If they weren’t displayed outwards, to intimidate enemies. You’ve got a different motivation, if only slightly.

And think there’s still some currency to the idea that some of those sacrifices utilized criminals. I’m thinking specifically of those bog bodies that seem to have been ritually executed multiple ways. Stabbed, strangled, bashed in the head, before being dumped in the bog. So it’s not necessarily mutually exclusive.


But there is not really need to speculate. There is plenty of written and archeological evidence indicating that various “celts” did this with the heads of their enemies. I remember seeing doorways with niches, presumed to be for just that purpose, at the Oppidium near Aix en Provence.

My impression is that the question is not did they do this, but how exactly did they do it (ie what did they use).


When the guillotines come out, who gets dibs on Trump?

I’m curious what this would have done culturally to Celt’s conception of what is “gross” and what is not. Or to put it more technically, how it impacted their understanding of what was sacred or degraded.

Did kids grow up thinking that severed heads were cool? Or did these heads always carry a sense of menace? If they were putting up only enemies, then it seems more likely they were still menacing. But if they were including cultural heroes among the heads, then perhaps severed heads were normalized or even revered.


There are stories where Celtic heros get advice from the heads they own, Shaman style.


Given the state of Trump’s … umm … make-up? … I rather think he’s started embalming his own head for us all, already. Which is nice.

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Downright considerate, even.

Given the number of Catholics involved in heavy metal I think we can take that as certain.