In excavations in southwestern Iran at the Tol-e Chega Sofla site on the Zohreh plain, a team of Iranian archaeologists unearthed 13 deformed skulls of humans, all of which had been intentionally altered by human hands.
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This eye-opening discovery was recently announced by Professors Mahdi Alirezazadeh, Hamed Vahdatinasab, and Abbas Moghaddam, who explained the meaning and significance of their find in an article published by the Iranian Scientific Archaeological Association .
“Since 13 deformed skulls have been excavated in this site so far and these skulls are well preserved, there is an excellent opportunity to study this issue,” the archaeologists wrote.
These are not the first human skulls found in southwest Asia that have been subjected to such treatment. The deformed skulls at Tol-e Chega Sofla show similarities with other recovered remains, with all the skulls dating back to the Neolithic (10000 to 4500 BC) and Chalcolithic (4500 to 3500 BC) periods.
A closeup of one of the deformed skulls, which had been intentionally modified, found in the Neolithic mass grave in Iran. ( Tehran Times )
Understanding Deformed Skulls Found in the Near East
Soil pressure can create deformed skulls inside graves. In other instances, people may be born with deformities of this nature. But earlier attempts to dismiss all deformed skulls as resulting from natural forces have now been abandoned, as archaeologists have discovered enough evidence to show skulls were deformed intentionally in many cases.
Deformed skulls have been found throughout the world . In the Near East, they’ve been recovered in areas between southern Mesopotamia and southern Anatolia. The oldest examples of intentional cranial deformation in the region were linked to Early Neolithic sites (10000 to 8000 BC) in southwest Iran, showing that the practice has a long history.
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The people with the deformed skulls found at Tol-e Chega Sofla were among a much larger group buried in 10 separate graves, with approximately 100 skeletons having been unearthed in this section of the cemetery in total. These individuals ranged in age from about six to older than 40, with most aged between 30 and 35 years old. Men, women, and children were buried together, with no separation implying no difference in status. Out of the 13 deformed skulls unearthed, 12 were in one of the ten mass graves .
The people whose skulls were deformed would likely have worn tight bands around their heads from a very young age, causing their heads to grow into a different shape as they matured. This was the most common method for changing the shape of skulls in southwest Asia in ancient times, although other alternatives may also have been used. Males and females were about equally represented in the deformed skull group, and their ages ranged from nine to 30 among females and 17 to 25 among males.
The True Complexity of Prehistorical Communities Revealed
The Zohreh plain is where the Tol-e Chega Sofla settlement and a cemetery can be found, 27 miles (45 kilometers) south of the town of Behbahan in the eastern Khuzestan province. During excavations at this spot, archaeologists have discovered signs of occupation that go back to between 4,700 to 3,700 BC.
Much of what had been discovered in the cemetery was discussed in a 2021 paper called “Tol-e Chega Sofla Cemetery: A Phenomenon in the Context of Late 5th Millennium Southwest Iran,” which was co-authored by Iranian archaeologists Negin Miri and Abbas Moghaddam. The latter was involved in the latest discovery of the deformed skulls as well, and this remarkable find sheds even more light on the beliefs and practices of ancient peoples in the region.
Cumulatively, the evidence collected during excavations at Tol-e Chega Sofla have revealed many fascinating details about prehistoric lifestyles in the Greater Susiana region. These details have emerged largely from the study of the cemetery, with its multiplicity of tomb structures and designs, its diversity collection of burial goods, and the skeletal remains of the individuals who lived during that far-off time.
“The findings from Tol-e Chega Sofla not only remind us to not underestimate prehistoric communities,” the authors of the 2021 article wrote, “but demonstrate the need to review many of our previous assumptions.”
Of the 13 deformed skulls, 12 were found in this mass grave in a cemetery that was “oddly” way too big for the tiny adjacent Neolithic settlement. ( Tehran Times )
The Story of Tol-e Chega Sofla is Still Unfolding
The residential section at Tol-e Chega Sofla was not extensive, covering just 50 acres (20 hectares). Consequently, the number of people who lived there at any one time must have been relatively small. The residential area features five mounds of various sizes, with the elevation of the highest reaching nearly 100 feet (30 meters) above the surrounding landscape.
On the other hand, the cemetery that sits adjacent to the settlement is astoundingly large. It is shaped in the form of a rectangle, spanning an area of approximately 1.5 miles by 2.5 miles (800 by 2,000 meters). Its massive size suggests the Tol-e Chega Sofla cemetery was used for multiple generations, or that it was the chosen burial spot for peoples who lived elsewhere and not just at that specific spot.
One possibility is that the site at Tol-e Chega Sofla may have been used for ritual purposes. This would explain why such a large number of people were buried there in proportion to the number who lived there. It might also explain the practice of intentional skull deformation, which may have had spiritual motivations or connotations.
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In addition to skeletons with deformed skulls, the 10 excavated mass graves have produced a wealth of finely crafted and carefully manufactured grave goods. The findings include painted pottery bowls, jars, and beakers, stone vessels of different sizes, an assortment of metal objects and vessels, and many small ornaments and personal items. These various objects were decorated with many different types of imagery, including geometrical insignias, pictures of snakes and other reptiles, and much, much more.
Currently, Tol-e Chega Sofla is included on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. This means it has not yet been nominated for World Heritage status, but likely will be in the not-too-distant future. The discovery of the unusual, deformed skulls will only strengthen the site’s case, as this discovery shows that Tol-e Chega Sofla has a rich history reaching far back into antiquity, with many surprises still waiting to be revealed.