Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted Skull & Jeweled Skulls in Archaeology

I think most people would agree that their skulls are a priceless asset. But what artist Damien Hirst has done to the following skull has actually made a nondescript skull into one of the most expensive pieces of art ever.

Damien Hrist’s Diamon Encrusted Skull

The diamond encrusted skull is a product of Hirst’s artwork. It is estimated to be worth more than $50 million, maybe even $100 million! It is believed to come from the skeleton of a man who lived between 1720 and 1810. From Reuters,

“British artist Damien Hirst revealed his latest work of art at the White Cube Gallery in London, June 1, 2007. “For the Love of God” is a life-size cast of a human skull in platinum and covered by 8,601 pave-set diamonds weighing 1,106.18 carats. The single large diamond in the middle of the forehead is reportedly worth $4.2 million alone. Hirst financed the project himself, and estimates it cost between 10 and 15 million. Of course, it will cost someone a pretty penny toown the work: It’s priced at $99 million. But given the cultlike following for Hirst’s previous works — and corresponding financial takings — some hedge fund manager, and closet Hirst fan, may shell out the cash for the diamond-crusted skull.”

Hirst’s Diamond skulls represents a curious intersection for me. One where archaeology is inspiring modern art. There are quite a lot of examples of bejeweled skulls in the archaeological record. Now, I don’t know for sure if Hirst’s inspiration for this work stemmed from the prevalence of jeweled skulls in the archaeological record. And I understand his skull is just a cast. But, I think it is notable that Hirst has taken something that has been done in many cultures throughout many different times and reproduced it into popular and profitable art.

One example of jeweled skulls in the fossil record is the one of a woman from Ur that unfortunately got looted from Iraq’s National Museum several years ago. It has not yet been recovered nor can I find an image of it. I do, however, have a photograph of a jade encrusted skull from Oaxaca, Mexico — specifically from the Monte Alban Tomb 7 Museum. This skull was formerly at the convent in Iglesias Santo Domingo.

Jade Encrusted Skull from Oaxaca Mexico

And from the blog, Mosiac Art Source, I found an image of the Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca, The Skull of the Smoking Mirrororiginally uploaded by Nolan Willis. Here’s a description of the skull,

The Skull of the Smoking Mirror

This mask is believed to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, one of the Aztec creator gods. He was also the god of rulers, warriors and sorcerers. His name can be translated as ‘Smoking Mirror’. In fact, in many depictions during the Postclassic period (A.D. 900/1000-1521) his foot is replaced by a mirror.

The base for this mask is a human skull. Alternate bands of turquoise and lignite mosaic work cover the front of the skull. The eyes are made of two discs of iron pyrites set in rings made of shell. The back of the skull has been cut away and lined with leather. The jaw is movable and hinged on the leather.

Turquoise was sent as tribute to the Aztec capital from several provinces of the empire.

Lastly, I have an very tiny image of inlade jade and turquoise stones inside the teeth of a Mayan skull from the ninth century. Unlike the skulls above, inlaying jewels inside teeth was practiced on living Mayans at the time. This was not done after death.

Mayan Jeweled Teeth

Although I have only shown you mostly examples of jeweled skulls from Mesoamerican cultures, I hope you do trust that examples of jewel encrusted skulls also have been found from archaeological digs from ancient China and Mesopotamia. I just can’t find images of them on the internets. I would even argue that the golden masks that covered the mummies of Egyptian pharoahs fall under the jewelled skulls.

So what’s it with skulls and adorning them with precious metals and stones? Is the skull considered the center of being in many cultures? No, not necessarily. Many cultures consider other parts of the human body central to existance, such as the gut in many Asian cultures. My best guess is that accross cultures and times, people subconciously consider the skull the home of humanity. It is where our words come from and our emotions are shown. And what would better a way to embrace that for eterinity than to inlay precious jewels and metals?

What’s your best guess?

32 thoughts on “Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted Skull & Jeweled Skulls in Archaeology

  1. Skull modification is one of my interests since it falls under the heading of ‘ancient beliefs.’

    In discussions with various archaeologists and students, the one theme that continues to return, particularly in regards to Mesopotamian skulls, is the concepts of ancestor worship and establishing a way of showing ownership of land.

    Many skull worship/skull modifications of Mesopotamia occur with pre-sedentary and newly sedentary societies (i.e. the Natufians). With the advent of food production as a subsistence strategy rather than foraging, a more intensive investment must be made on a given parcel of land. Previously, a society would move from parcel to parcel as the seasons changed, following the available food. Modern foragers (what few remain) still adhere to this model today as much as is possible.

    Once a society began farming, the land had to be maintained and sedentism took hold. Marking out and delineating what the boundaries of a farmers fields were was an issue, but another was deciding which child inherits the land after the patriarch (or, perhaps, the matriarch) died. Agricultures creates a need for a larger workforce and family sizes grow.

    The skulls, therefore, may have been both a method of ancestor worship and a way of passing property from one generation to the next.

    Its just a speculation -barely a hypothesis. But an idea worth kicking around as the contexts for skull finds are examined. There’s evidence that many were stored under floors and platforms in houses.

  2. Wow, I learn a new thing everyday don’t I? Excellent comment, Carl. I can see how this speculation can be supported even with a generalized context like the one you supported.

    About the evidence decorated skulls were kept in houses in Mesopotamian cultures — these people also ‘processed’ their dead right in their front lawns. That was how they remembered their dead, I’m sure you know.

    What I’m getting at is that since they kept their dead so close to home, adorning and decorating their family member’s skull is not only an understandable behavior — but when applied to land ownership and keeping track of lineage, this makes even more sense.

    Thanks for throwing in your two cents on this, much appreciated and very enlightening.

  3. THE ASTRONOMICAL NEW HISTORY OF ART

    Following Damien Hirst’s £50 million “For the love of God”, I have decided to put my painting “The eternal and infinite universe (94)” on the market for £50 million and one pence. This work, painted in 1994, November, carried a brief explanation of the universe as eternal and infinite, reasoning that the visible universe should be accelerating apart (in a way that also explained the ‘clumping of matter’ phenomenon). It also provided an explanation for Olbers paradox, in an infinite universe, in terms of basic physics. The painting was publicly exhibited first in Jan 1995 with a price of £7 million.

    Gathering observations of supernovae about two-to-three years later showed the universe was accelerating apart (against all the expectations of astrophysicists) affirming the theory in the painting.

    Naturally, if the universe is infinite and eternal (something we can never know for sure) then everything is ultimately unfathomable. Maybe that is why the universe becomes more understandable ultimately to an artist than to scientists.

    The new price reflects the painting’s (not yet widely known) unique achievement in the history of art and the history of understanding the universe: two histories that should converge, as they do in this work.

    Mark Bridger

  4. Good for you Mark, now in the future please keep your comments on the topic of anthropology and not self promotion of your own art.

    We’re an anthropology site — while your painting of the universe maybe grand and explain some complex physical paradigms it really has nothing to do with anthropology.

    It maybe really hard to sell art, and the more exposure one gets, the better their chances are to sell the piece — but this place ain’t the site to be advertising your work.

  5. Sorry Kambiz but a culture’s understanding of the nature of the universe is the most crucial part of anthropology.
    There’s a tendency for science and religion to believe the universe is finite. That gives us the illusion that we can someday know it all. An infinite universe means the universe is ultimately mysterious – so there can be no authority, no absolutism – which those in power fear.

  6. I’m so glad I came across this website. I’m doing research on effigies of the dead for my B.A. degree in fine arts. I’m very interested in death masks, portraits and skull modification. Though my research is for a project for Art History, I’m dabbling more in Anthropology.

    I’ve only really heard of the Jericho-skulls – fascinating. Why reconstruct a person’s face in plaster and put shells in the eye sockets to represent eyes? Is it really ancestor worship? Did they try to “bring the person to life again”? Why not just paint a picture of the person’s face, no matter how primitive, instead of reconstructing his or her skull?

    Questions I guess we’ll never be able to answer. But I’m fascinated by ancient cultures’ “obsession” with death. Why go through all the trouble of making death masks and constructing elaborate tombs? Why was the afterlife a greater reality for them as it is for us?

    If someone has more info for me on any of these, please comment. Thanx.

    1. check out archaeology of mayan sites if you are interested in death masks and the like, especially the site of Palenque and the king named Pacal. His jade death mask is quite awesome. There are a few other really compelling examples from the Mayans, so if you haven’t already found that out… you should!

  7. Now a days i like to think that there was or is some sort of intimate relationship between the artist and the subject center of the piece(the dead individual) It might make me look past all the richy rich bs to the actual heart of the Thin-slice of life that would make me think that this person acually had to suffer in some sence to in some way to have this be a paramount “slice of there life”.

  8. You should see the “Kapala” if you are interested in skulls and artifacts made of human rests.

  9. I agree with only some people in here…. I believe that although the look is fascinating, the dead should remain at peace instead of played around with for the entertainment. I personally would not like my head to be filled with diamonds and shown around like a prize….

  10. cooldude, you miss the point completely. Damien Hirst’s artwork is based off cast of a human skull, not an actual skull. The dead was left at peace here.

    Kambiz

  11. Correct, a cast was made of the skull, but the teeth in the artwork are the actual human material. I presume that the original skull resides with the artist and is now wearing platinum teeth cast from its originals.

  12. I get so frustrated when I hear the term “ancestor worship.” Exactly how do people know that based off one piece of evidence? Yes, we humans have gone through great change over a long period of time but not really that much in some cases. My friend has a large mouth bass, and various stuffed deer hanging on his wall. Suppose for a moment in 2,000 years from now no written (or other) record survives…will future archeologist dig up his home and assume he worshipped bass and deer? When I think of the word “worship” (or ritual for that matter) I think of a much more intimate relationship than just encrusting a skull. If ancestor worship is going on then there would be much more evidence of it than one piece. I am more willing to believe that it could just be a loved one that is cared for, that is in no way an indication of worship. Caring for something/someone and worshipping something/someone are totally different all together. Indications of worship would be present in abundance in common areas shared by ALL members of that culture. That is what worship is, right? If this were a single solitary group who cut themselves off from others then I would be more willing to believe it. Just like the bass and the deer on my friends wall it could also be the head of your proud kill that someone is putting on display…could it not? I’m new to Anthropology but from what I have read so far just doesn’t satisfy me. I was under the understanding that in order to solve a problem in science you keep going until you are 100% satisfied with the results. I guess I am a cynic but just because one person said it and everyone else repeats it doesn’t satisfy me. If I am wrong in my summary then by all means point me in the direction of a report that does a better job explaining it than just calling it this and offering no real explanation. That is slippery science in my opinion!

    Same goes for the use of the word “ritual.” I ritually celebrate my birthday with family and friends every year. During this ritual I get gifts etc. Recently I heard that there was a ritual use of jade in skulls in Meso America. Really? Does every skull found have jade encrusted on it. I’m not talking about some skulls with jade encrusted teeth being ritual unless all or almost all skulls are found that way. If it’s not then how is that ritual? It tells me that jade encrusted teeth were from someone of nobility or powerful etc.

    I guess I am trying to say the words in my opinion are overused and therefor cheapened. It takes away from the actual meaning when you do run across it because almost everyone claims it in their work. I need to be more convinced by evidence and not just claims of it. A majority of these cultures are very advanced in various aspects of their life. To pass it off without a better explanation does not do that culture justice or give them very much credit.

    1. FreeToThink….
      To the Aztec (and similar cultures) worshiping their God’s was highly important. They did not see art in the same way that we do, to them their ‘art’ served a purpose, it was simply a way of life, rather than a part of life, they had a far more intimate relationship with art than a ‘ready made’ on a pedestal… or a deer head on a wall. To them visual language and Symbolism was a familiar way to communicate, they surrounded their lives with intricately carved objects, sculptures and pyramids in the name of their Gods.

      That mask, carefully decorated to look like Tezcatlipoca with semi-precious stones, would be worn by an important priest during lunar times of celebration for the God (their calendar was lunar based). Turquoise was used for its beautiful colour. If you are making something for someone as important as the Aztec’s importance of their Gods, wouldn’t you use the most cherished and beautiful materials you could get your hands on?
      To the Aztecs, when someone dressed as a god they sincerely felt that they became that god on Earth.

      At the right time of year, the main ritual for worshiping Tezcatlipoca involved a single youth chosen by the Priests, they would treat him luxuriously for a year as he was made into an impersonation of Tezcatlipoca, and he would be given four beautiful wives who impersonated four Goddesses. His last week was spent singing, feasting, dancing and playing a flute in the streets. On his last day he would apparently climb the pyramid, break his flute and surrender his body to the priests, his head would be cut off and his still-beating heart cut out.

      I wasn’t 100% sure what you were asking/ getting at.
      I hoped that this might answer some questions. (Even if it was during 2008)

  13. FreeToThink,

    I see you’re raising a very subjective argument.

    Ladening a skull with jewels and precious stones is not just caring or showing interest in the skull. If your friend’s large mouth bass, and various stuffed deer hanging on his wall, were jewel encrusted, I would side on the notion that an archaeologist may interpret this as some sort of value-inscribed item. That’s because every culture that I know of, that use jewels and precious stones, have used them in context of showing value.

    On that note, ritual is not an everyday thing as you imply it. Ritual is an action with symbolic meaning. Embedding jade in teeth in Mesoamerican cultures were rituals, they were symbolic representations of nobility and class.

    Kambiz

  14. I still think it’s dangerous to use the word ritual unless you are further describing which ritual. The jade encrusted teeth was only used because it fit the story. It raised my ire when I read of the “ritual” deaths in Mayan Caves in Belize….there were 14 skeletons with blunt force trauma to the head. That is 14 bodies. If it’s really ritual and not punishment (or justice) then I would like to know what ritual. It has been said that the deaths might be associated with the mayan moon god. Did the deaths correspond to some lunar eclipse or something? My point is…when I read an article it only say’s “ritual”…ok…what ritual…provide insight.

    On the worship front. If these cultures practiced ancestor worship then why are there community gods too. How does that fit into their belief system to have a god they all believe in and a god only a few believe in?

  15. When chimpanzees stumble upon bones of other large animals on there foraging
    trips they largely ignored them. And yet, it was noted, a chimp would pick up a scull once in a wile, and examined closely. We, as homo sapiens always have been fascinated by sculls in general and specifically with sculls of our fellow humans. From a Scythian Chieftain who would diligently work on the scull of his enemy, till the scull would be turned into a very elaborate and artfully decorated goblet, to my roommate Patrick who kept 2 crystal sculls by his bedside ( he claimed he dreams of chicks then), every culture and every people held scull
    in high regard. Probably, because it is most recognizable part of the human skeleton and let’s face it, as a conversation piece on your coffee table, scull
    looks much better then a shoulder plate or a hip.

  16. want to point out many many early hominid skull finds are suggestively stored away safely, treated, defleshed, and often found deeper in the caves then the habitation layers. the markapansgat pebble also suggests skulls were a familiar sight.
    i think it is underresearched, tho i know of some (even older) attempts of compilation. the idea skulls served a memorial function for millions of years has been in the mind of more then one famous anthropologist. Also i think a comprising statistical research remains undone, the last attempt to extrapolation being from i think the 1960s.

    1. Onix, early hominids fossils are fossils. There isn’t any flesh on a fossil.

      Your argument that skulls have been remembered as a significant structure for millions of years is also horribly flawed. What do you even mean?

      1. they are defleshed when still alive, ofcourse. i think you seek arguments not to take me serious and i dont have time to waste it like that.

  17. Some of my friends call the art of encrusting skulls ‘distastfully mideval,’ I beg to differ. However excrusiating it must have been getting de-fleshed, it’s a tradition dating back thousands of years, as long as mankind has making shrunkin heads.

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