The Social Lives of Severed Heads

Barra O'Donnabhain

in The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780813035567
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780813041766 | DOI:
The Social Lives of Severed Heads

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This chapter on skulls from medieval Ireland integrates three lines of evidence—archaeology, literature and iconography—to show that the severing of heads and their collection and public display in centers of elite social and political power served to negotiate power and difference between competing groups beginning as early as the seventh century ad. This chapter argues that decapitation was used to symbolically transform insiders, as members of a group, into social outsiders through the removal and denigration of their heads and other body parts. This concept expanded with the rise of Christianity and the notion of purgatory, denying privileged status to both the body and the soul of the social outcast.

Keywords: decapitation; insiders; social outcasts; Christianity; Medieval Ireland; social outsiders

Chapter.  5212 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Prehistoric Archaeology

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