Ritual or Fluvial? A Further Comment on the Thames Skulls

By West, Barbara | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Ritual or Fluvial? A Further Comment on the Thames Skulls


West, Barbara, Antiquity


Further (and final) comment on the origin of ancient human skulls from the River Thames (ANTIQUITY 62 (1988): 503-9; 69 (1995): 162-9) is prompted by comparison with the skulls from the London Thames tributary, the Walbrook.

Knusel & Carr's ANTIQUITY article on the Thames skulls (March 1995) attributes these finds to fluvial sorting, and states (p. 166): 'The same interpretation may be applied to the Walbrook crania (Marsh & West 1981).' It cites taphonomic studies (pp. 163-4):

In the process of dispersion bones often lose their original form ... crania lose their facial region, forming calvaria.... Many of the Thames basin crania examined are in this condition and have been eroded from water action as a result of being rolled along the river bottom.

This statement forms a main foundation for their argument: yet no data is offered to substantiate it. Despite their statement that the age, sex and condition of the Thames skulls were re-assessed (p. 163), the data on condition (percentages & photographs of completeness, 'erosion', 'river-bottom rolling', etc.) were completely excluded from their paper.

In the Walbrook study, half the skulls lacked the facial region (Marsh & West 1981: 90). Examples of the other half can be seen in FIGURE 1. The lack of abrasion marks (also noted in Marsh & West 1981, but not mentioned by Knusel & Carr), excellent condition and complete facial regions form a striking contrast to the assertions of Knusel & Carr.

As for craniometry, Chris Stringer (Natural History Museum) has made extensive use of cranial vault measurements in his research (see, for example, Stringer 1992), and comments (pers. comm. June 1995):

Knusel & Carr's [p. 163] paraphrasing of Howells (1989) is somewhat misleading. While Howells notes that the upper face is important, he by no means states that the cranial vault is unimportant. His 1973 monograph provides plenty of data for the usefulness of cranial vault measurements in discriminating populations, as is illustrated by the following quote: 'Whatever the agencies causing differences of cranial form in modern man, these differences have long been assumed to be deep-seated and relatively slow to change, and there is no indication to the contrary in this study.... In other words, the value of cranial distinctions in assessing genetic relationships of modern populations, as in tracing populations into the past, continues to seem considerable.

In addition to the references cited by Richard Bradley in his reply to Knusel & Carr (ANTIQUITY 69: 168-9), I recommend Ralph Merrifield's (1987) book, The archaeology of ritual and magic, which collates related discoveries, such as human skulls deposited with complete pots in the bottom of Romano-British wells. These did not arrive there by fluvial action.

Finally, I would point out that the idea that the Walbrook skulls represent differential deposition of bones by fluvial action was current at the turn of the century (Reader 1903; quoted in Marsh & West 1981: 91).

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Chris Stringer, Harvey Sheldon & Francis Crew for advice, and Jenny Hall for providing the photograph.

CHRISTOPHER KNUSEL & GILLIAN CARR(*) comment:

The intent of our publication was to refute any attempt to 'date' or provenance crania (not skulls, which include the cranium and mandible) on the basis of craniometrics. We found evidence of abrasion, erosion, or preservation of only calottes, calvaria, or cranial fragments of 33% of the total examined (60/178). …

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