Skull cups

"The next time you're in a museum, keep a sharp eye out for skull cups," Gadling advises brightly today, following up on a BBC report about the discovery of three ancient skulls that were carved into drinking cups. And you can bet your life I will, Gadling, because skull cups can be beautiful, like the one above (apparently Chinese, although its provenance is a little murky) but mostly because they are SKULLS carved into CUPS and ancient people DRANK OUT OF THEM, and if that doesn't give you nightmares, take another good look at the less aesthetic and more terrifying model whose picture accompanies the BBC story and remind yourself that once upon a time it was the repository for SOME GUY'S BRAINS.


  1. Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull
    by Lord Byron

    Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
    In me behold the only skull
    From which, unlike a living head,
    Whatever flows is never dull.

    I lived, I loved, I quaffed like thee;
    I died: let earth my bones resign:
    Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
    The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

    Better to hold the sparkling grape
    Than nurse the earthworm’s slimy brood,
    And circle in the goblet’s shape
    The drink of gods than reptile’s food.

    Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
    In aid of others’ let me shine;
    And when, alas! our brains are gone,
    What nobler substitute than wine?

    Quaff while thou canst; another race,
    When thou and thine like me are sped,
    May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
    And rhyme and revel with the dead.

    Why not—since through life’s little day
    Our heads such sad effects produce?
    Redeemed from worms and wasting clay,
    This chance is theirs to be of use.

  2. It’s probably Tibetan, not Han Chinese. Some sects of Tibetan Buddhism use skull cups and thigh-bone flutes as reminders of human mortality. The vajras on the edges of the cup are characteristic of Tibetan Buddhist iconography.

  3. The Dorjes on the skull cup in the above photo look Tibetan to me, and not at all Chinese. I’d assume that is what you’re referring to with remark on its “murky” provenance.

  4. I was at a convention once and the guy a couple tables over from me had one of these for sale- Said it was from the early Victorian era. The artwork on it looked Indian, with gold leaf in spots. I think he got somewhere around $400 for it.

  5. I really can’t think of a better use for mine own skull.

    You know. Once I’m done using it.

    Hope it doesn’t leak.

  6. I still remember going to a curio shoppe filled with global artifacts on Columbus St in SF some years ago: there was a real skull covered with intricate silver leaf and blue lapis stones: the cap was removable. Was Tibetan: a monks skull. Amazing artistry: $700. I still kinda wish I had bought it; but I’m also ok with not living with some strangers head. . .

    1. That’s an excellent business model right there. If people will pay for 3D prints of their pre-babies, why not their own skulls?

  7. I have heard that the ritual for exhuming a body in Greece (the cemeteries have been full for a long time, so after a while the bones are dug up and moved to an ossuary) includes the family of the deceased drinking red wine out of the skull to apologise for disturbing them.

  8. It should be known that skull cups are used in traditional rituals of Buddhism and other traditions. Practitioners sometimes specifically leave their bones (relics) to be used by others as practice objects. For example, if you watch the movie, ‘The Unmistaken Child’ the Lama who dies, leaves the top of his skull intact (as in it does not burn) in the cremation ashes. The proper Sanskrit / Tibetan word used for these objects is Kapala , and may be worth looking into if people are interested.

  9. I’ve seen these at the Beijing antique flea market. They were in one of the aisles where the Tibetan guys setup shop. While nicely carved, I couldn’t get over the ghoulish sense that some poor dead guy was dug up so his skull could be sold to a tourist for $50. Maybe they got the head in a “legitimate” fashion, but I would prefer my head not to end up for sale in a Chinese flea market.

      1. India banned all exports of human skeletons a few decades ago:I would not be surprised if the trade you’re referring to hasn’t also ceased to exist.

        Real human skeletons cost serious money now, compared to the old days.

  10. I’ve sen a lot of Tibetan ones, even on Ebay.. I’m sorry but skull cups are very cool.. expensive though.

  11. The Bulgar nobility for some centuries would use a gold-enchased skull-drinking-cup made from that of a Byzantine Emperor during their feasts and revels.

    “Krum of Bulgaria was said by Theophanes the Confessor, Joannes Zonaras, Mannases Chronicle, and others, to have made a jeweled cup from the skull of the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I (811 AD) after killing him in the Battle of Pliska.”


    One of the more interesting Wikipedia entries, IMHO.

  12. I did a paper on the Inca back in, oh, I think high school, and I still more or less remember a war poem that was cited in one of the texts I read. It went something like this, and “chicha” is a kind of corn beer:

    We’ll make flutes from your leg bones
    We’ll make drums from your skin
    We’ll drink chicha from your skulls
    And then we’ll dance.

    Yeah. Badass, that. But anyway, the Inca did that too.

  13. Pretty sure it’s Tibetan, not Chinese. The skeleton and vajras on the side are very much in Tibetan style of art

  14. I have one in my cabinet of curiosities and oddities, along with head hunters’ trophies, stuffed animals, bones, naturalia and medicalia. My kapala (skull cup) shows splendid carvings, and is probably my favorite piece of the collection. A great, touching and moving memento mori, a piece of life tranfigured in art.

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