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Piece of skull used in a trephination experiment with an obsidian knife, England, 1913

This piece of skull was part of a trephination experiment which used an obsidian knife. Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass. It is a hard wearing material and can cut through materials such as marble and bone. The hole produced is 19 mm in diameter. The inscriptions tells us that it took half an hour to produce the hole and that the skull belonged to a 44-year-old male. This experiment was carried out by Thomas Wilson Parry (1866-1945), an English doctor who was interested in the tools and techniques of Neolithic trephination. Parry collected skulls from around the world and experimented on them with different types of tools. It is shown here with a piece of obsidian (A652069/1).

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    Glossary: human remains

    term created as part of the NMSI human remains policy (from April 2007); Other terms used are 'blood' and 'human hair'

    Glossary: skull

    The skeleton of the head of a vertebrate animal, including the brain case, or cranium, and the bones and cartilages of the face and mouth. The skull can be subdivided into two parts: the cranium and the mandible. The human skull is made up from 22 bones.

    Glossary: trephination

    The removal of a circular piece of the top of the head. This is done using a sharp implement or circular saw, and was common in Neolithic times. It is thought that the aim was to release evil demons or spirits from the body in the hope this would cure the person of their illness.

    Glossary: obsidian

    A black or very dark volcanic rock. Obsidian was shattered into very sharp blades and sometimes used as a tool for working marble on a small scale.