Researchers analyzing and reconstructing an 11,000-year-old red deer headdress – the earliest known evidence of shamanic costume – used traditional techniques to reveal that the production process is surprisingly expedient and includes pyrotechnology. The findings are published in PLOS ONE this week.
Shamanic belief systems are one of the earliest forms of religious practice, and they’re still common today among hunter-gatherer and small-scale agricultural communities. Excavations of burials indicate that shamans occupied a high status, but there’s little evidence of shamanic costume. That is, until the 1940s, when 24 headdresses were unearthed at the Early Holocene site of Star Carr on the edge of an ancient lake in what’s now North Yorkshire in the U.K. These two dozen headdresses make up 90 percent of all such known artifacts across early prehistoric Europe. Each was formed from the skull cap of a male red deer (Cervus elaphus) with the antlers still attached.
Now, a large team led by University of York’s Aimée Little has analyzed a red deer headdress, one of three uncovered during more recent excavations in 2013 at Star Carr. It consisted of the frontal and parietal bones of an adult male that was about 50 percent larger than its modern counterparts. The team used a variety of techniques to study the specimen, including 3D laser scanning, and they also tried to replicate the traces observed on the headdress using the heads of four male roe deer and four female and one male red deer. The team took flint blades and hammerstones to the skulls, and they also wrapped them up in a layer of damp clay and placed them on a bed of embers for four hours.
Virtual reconstruction based on surface scans. A. Little et al., PLOS ONE 2016
Based on their experiments – the first scientific study of the oldest known evidence of a shamanic costume – the team may have figured out the manufacturing sequence. For each headdress, a mature red deer male was killed in the autumn or winter seasons before he shed his antlers. The head was removed, along with large amounts of antler – some of which were used as barbed projectile tips for hunting and fishing.
Then, either a tool was used to chop through the skin to start the de-skinning process or the skin was left on and peeled off after the cranium was taken off the embers. The charred bone and flesh were removed using a small hammerstone and a core tool, and the brain was then cooked and removed using a flint blade. Finally, a pointed tool was used to make two perforations on either side of the cranium.
"This research shows how experimental archaeology can give important insights into rare ancient artifacts," Little said in a statement. "Knowing fire was used invokes a real sense of atmosphere surrounding the making of these ritual shamanic headdresses."