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Image: ‘Underskin Desert’ by Serhii Tyaglovsky. Source: Unsplash.

Editor’s note: This piece includes graphic images of skulls and blood, as well as descriptions of violence and self-mutilation.

This archaeology of the body exists in concurrent streams of time.

In Jericho, 1958, a woman brushes soil from your eye sockets and cradles your skull in her hands. In the hands of an archaeologist, you are an artefact. Right now, you close your eyes and lean back. The shaman has you. Her hands are gentle as she shaves your hair. You have been here before. If she shifts her thumb slightly it will press over the velvety depression left from before, where underneath a milky scar the skull gives way to soft tissue. The shaman peels back a slice of scalp. The stone knife grates against your skull, circle over circle, the groove deepening until something shifts and that shard of bone can be pulled so tenderly away. Light reaches the slick, pearly quiver of your brain.

You are revealed again and again and again, to that which is outside the confines of your body and mind.

In Jericho, 1958, you are found.


Image: ‘Bronze Age Skull from Jericho’ (circa 2200–2000 BCE). Source: Wellcome Collection.

I don’t know who found you. Dame Kathleen Kenyon donated you to a museum in London. I was there in June last year. How would it have gone if I’d known of you sooner? Could we have met? ‘Met’ isn’t quite the right word, but I don’t know what else to call it. I could have visited your display case, I suppose, and seen you. But when I imagine this hypothetical it is a meeting—eyes locking with the negative space left by eyes, your bareness revealing my own convoluted aliveness. I know so little about you. I scan the same blurb, repeated on every website:

Although this skull shows four separate holes made by the ancient surgical process of trephination, they had clearly begun to heal. This suggests that although highly dangerous, the procedure was by no means fatal.

Again and again and again. Did the final penetration kill you?

Also known as trepanation, or trepanning, the process of making a hole through the skull to the surface of the brain might be carried out to treat a range of medical conditions or for more mystical reasons.

Medical or mystical? Was the pain in your head so insistent that a hole was preferable? Or was it an ecstasy? The openness? The transparency to your maker?


Trepanation evolved from violence, with trepanned skulls found most often where weapons that could fracture a skull were used. At first, then, it was an excavation, a prayer—if the entry wound was clear, perhaps the victim would recover. More often, they would not. But these survivors, oh, these survivors—their transmutations of mortality have caught me by the throat. To be injured, then opened, then live and die and survive into archaeology; to come closer to life through a hole in the head, to come closer to immortality through your own mortality—what extremes you embody.


I find it difficult to stick to past tense. Filing number, archive box, location of discovery, age—forget all of that, I want to know your name.

How else do I speak to your presence?


There are plenty of skulls with holes in them. This is a universal truth. Brutality, accidents, clumsy attempted healing; as a species, we are myriad with puncture wounds. To willingly add more seems so counterintuitive—invasion, reduction, permanent fragility—but so many modern surgeries meet those same modalities.

Trepanation is unique in its transgression of the symbolic language of consciousness. Memento mori, the skull divorced, broken, the skull empty of intelligence; trepanation, the skull opened, disarticulated, the skull abundant with life.

Image: Still-Life with a Skull (c. 1671) by Philippe de Champaigne. Source: Public Domain.

I search in vain for the full film of Amanda Feilding, twenty-seven, dressed in white, performing trepanation on herself using a dental drill. ‘Heartbeat in the Brain’ is not publicly available anywhere, though you can find snippets (it was deemed too shocking, and Amanda, now eighty, decided never to publicly release it).

The film became my mantra, she lilts.

What she means is she needed an override for the instinctual panic induced by raising a blade to one’s own skull, so she becomes not just sacrificial flesh, not just wielder of the blade, but witness, archivist. She performs this gory intimacy with her self through the lens of a camera. I find flashes of the film in documentaries. She stares at her reflection in the mirror as she wipes the blood from her forehead, her nose, her mouth. Her pupils almost swallow her irises. Her white dress is drenched, quasi-religious.

Image: Still from ‘Heartbeat in the Brain’ by Amanda Feilding, featured in A Hole in the Head by Eli Kabillio (1970). Source: Internet Archive.

She and her partner, Joey Mellen, hypothesised that the great Fall of Mankind was a fall of blood from the brain.

Is a hole in the head the gateway to Eden? The perfect cavity of our skull, a bolted gate?

This school of trepanation theorises going back to a state of childhood, in the days before the skull fuses into one and the brain no longer beats as freely. Approach innocence through a wound.

Feilding says she floated. Wrapped her bloodied head in a silk scarf and went to a party with her lover, danced in the living room, felt an unknown pressure slowly lifting. There wasn’t much pain. Just openness. Her childhood was solitary, folkloric. She tells tales of creek deities and natural philosophy. At that party, did she close her eyes and feel the marshes reaching back to her? That child-philosopher self slipping a small hand into hers?

I wish I could watch her dance.

I wonder if anyone at that party thought her gruesome.


What would Hippocrates have thought of her endeavours? His writings On Wounds of the Head is the first written medical treatise on the treatment of cranial trauma, and he describes in detail how and when to perform trepanation. For Hippocrates, there is no spirituality accessible through the skull. There is some speculation that he had never trepanned anyone himself before writing it—a slight hesitancy in how he describes the technique, a notable lack of reasoning for why trepanation should be performed, and early, after some traumatic head injuries. But the bones of it are there. He knew to avoid the delicate dura, the membrane that connects the brain to the skull, knew to watch for signs of fever, knew how the friction of a saw against bone could burn. And from other Hippocratic writings, we can infer his reasoning for trepanation—the notion that blood, like water, can stagnate and turn to rot. A hole in the skull then is like dredging a creek, allowing the muck to rush out and the stream to clear.

Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded Feilding’s self-administration.

By her own standards, she did no harm. Her philosophies are eccentric, if not deranged, to the contemporary ear, though perhaps that ancient surgeon who thought of the body as a river to be kept rushing would be sympathetic to the notion of giving the brain more room to breathe.

Perhaps. Or perhaps he would have been repelled by the idea of returning to a childlike state.

I don’t know.

I can’t know.


In a memory, I am studying each gilded page of a guide to Egyptology. I am eight years old and teaching myself to be unafraid of what they do to the dead, of legacy and its materialities, of the consequences of having a body.

I don’t think this at the time, of course. I am simply a curious child.

I trace and label illustrations of sarcophagi, of embalmers’ tools, of the jars each organ was placed in, lungs, intestines, stomach, liver. The heart is returned to the body, washed in wine, clean and surrounded by linen.

 I am not clean. I hunger and know how to be afraid, as all creatures do.

But I do not want to be afraid of preservation.

So I study.

Image: ‘Egyptian Scalpels’ (1949). Source: Wellcome Collection.

The one thing I can’t stay settled in the face of is the hooks they use to remove the brain. Excerebration. The word delights me, but the cruel curve of the tools makes me shudder. I resent the way they undermine my steel. Most of the time, I feel a kind of animal-philosopher awe at each page, a twitch stemming from someplace between reverence and horror, the mammalian body of it all competing with the brilliance of ritual and invention.

When faced with the hooks, body horror wins.

I will learn the word abject ten years later and recognise the impulse to keep looking. But at eight, I have begun learning about the brain, grappling with the knowledge of knowledge through the medium of school reports and clay models.

There is so much mystery. I feel desperate over it. I know the dead do not need their bodies, that their brains had ceased to be anything but tissue before those hooks got close to them. I even know, vaguely, as much as a child can conceptualise aeons, that these people were dead long before the language in which I learn about them even existed. But I flinch. I want to be a mind forever. These bodily disturbances get under my skin.


I am still thinking of grey matter twelve years later when I slide into the table in the back corner and order a glass of chardonnay and a single oyster. When it arrives, perfect, out of place in its singularity, the waiter comments with a smile on my small moment of decadence. On my tongue, it is total in its expression, primal. I begin to write:

In an unfurnished house, a girl I just met tells me she recently held a man’s head together with a tea towel after someone took to him with a rock. I feel elusive when I write it like that. One man beat another with a rock, and a girl was left kneeling in the gore. She tells it like it happened to someone else, like she heard the story second-hand, until she mentions that there is still a bloodstain on the sidewalk outside her house. Then she starts to shake.

I have not seen such violence in the flesh, a skull split. I have only suggestions—a family with a flinch, a memory of blood and bruises, wandering headaches. But at night I dream of Cain and Abel. I have always had an affection for Cain, his virginal murder, his naivety of mortality, his sarcasm. In my dream, Cain splits the stems of dandelions carefully, threads them into a flower crown. Abel accepts it, places it over his dark curls. Beneath the flowers, you can barely see where his skull caves in. Beneath the flowers, a rock is buried.


Perhaps I’m just haunted by an inherent sense of mysticism. I find myself stoned with a friend on the lawn at a birthday party. There’s something fawn-like about his eyes in this light as he kneels over my cracked phone screen while I flick through a gallery of trepanned skulls. As I ramble about the procedure, the artefacts, the obsidian blades and talismans, I find myself wondering whether he feels the same fishhook in his heart as I do when I talk about this. I wonder if I would know by looking through a hole in his skull.


I am still looking for some way into Amanda Feilding’s head. She shows up during an episode of a show on SBS. Upon her introduction, she tells the host all about her love affair with a pigeon, Birdie:

I know telepathy exists because I had this passionate love affair with a pigeon, who I brought up from a baby, and he fixated and fell madly in love with me and I with him. That was the beginning of one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. He had two main emotions which [were] passionate love and hateful jealousy.

I have decided this woman is an expert witness on certain kinds of madness. I have also decided that she is a delight. I haven’t spent this long resting in bafflement for a while. This slight, whimsical woman has a hole in her skull somewhere under her wispy hair. I wonder how many lovers pressed their lips to that indent, whether any of them were brave enough to do it. Surely. Surely you can’t love a woman with a hole in her skull and not experience the heartbeat in her brain against your lips.

I wonder whether Birdie was jealous that he couldn’t do the same.

Image: Amanda Feilding with Birdie. Source: Beckley Foundation.

One of the others interviewed alongside her is a thin man with an almost ghoulish face covered with a shock of white hair. He, like Feilding, believes that the enclosed cavity of the skull is a barrier to expanded consciousness. He compares this expansion to falling in love:

‘If you try explaining that to someone who’s never been in love, at all, they haven’t got a clue. And if you try explaining it to someone else who’s been in love, you’ll probably find that their idea of being in love is not the same anyway, but they’ve got a glimmering—it’s that sort of feeling it just—’

I believe he said glimmering. He speaks very quickly, and I have started talking over him, three glasses of wine into a conversation with a friend. They have never heard of this woman, nor of trepanation, until I pour my cup into their ear. We have been through many obsessions together, this friend and me. They are aware of my waxing into a new one, welcome it alongside tales of girls with sharp teeth and my recent idolatry of Cixous.

I explain to them that it’s about looking.

They understand.

It’s about the internal.

They understand.


So, akin to falling in love. Incomprehensible. Inventive. Trepanation is not the only method to expand consciousness; in fact, it may be no method at all. But it is the most visceral image of change I know, and oh, imagine the double-transmutation of trepanation and love, those ultimate alterations. Feilding was introduced to trepanation by a lover. He had his own hole in the head. She didn’t want anyone’s hands on her skull but her own, though she had him there. Watching, recording. Bearing witness. Bearing a matching wound.


They have found countless cranial amulets from across the course of human history, pendants and roundelles made of human skulls. Some anthropologists believe that those created from trepanned skulls were worn to imbue the wearer with the supposed power of the trepanned, a primitive mysticism. If the deceased had survived a trepanation, a second, posthumous trepanation may have been carried out, carefully incorporating a section of the original puncture edge. A crescent bone-moon, one edge smoothed by healing, the other sharp. Other cranial amulets have been found around the necks of those they came from, the missing jigsaw piece secured with leather or twine to its puzzle.

I want to know how many were given to lovers. I don’t believe there could be anything more intimate. Victorian mourning lockets pale in comparison to having a fragment of your love’s skull draped over your neck by their hands.

Bronze Age Skull from Jericho, did you have a lover? Someone gripping your hand as the drill worked you open, someone to hold you through the night as your bleeding slowed? Someone worthy of wearing your one-two-three skull fragments over their heart, safeguarding the unhinged windows you had opened to the outside? I hope you did. I hope it was someone who didn’t need a drill to know what it looks like inside your mind.

I hope, in life, you felt transparent to someone.

This essay was a runner-up in the 2023 KYD Non-Fiction Essay Prize.