We’ve all heard the expression, “I need that like a hole in the head.” But did you know at one time in history a procedure that drilled a hole into one’s head was relatively common. It’s called a burr hole or trephination.
A burr hole is created when an area is drilled or scraped through the human skull exposing the dura mater. This operation, which uses an instrument called a trephine to remove a piece of the skull bone, dates back as far as 6500 BC and was performed for a variety of reasons including cleansing the body of evil spirits to, more commonly, relieving pressure from areas beneath the skull.
In ancient times the bit of bone that was removed from the skull was often made into a charm or amulet to ward off evil spirits. Some researchers even suggest that the surgery was performed solely for the procurement of these small bone discs, called rondelles, to create the aforementioned protection jewelry.
The first trephinated skulls from 6500 BC which were found at a gravesite in France suggest the procedure was not uncommon for the time, with a full 40 of the 120 skulls examined showing evidence of burr holes. Fast forward 8500 years and you will see trephination is still performed to this day as is generally called a craniotomy. The modern approach replaces the removed piece of skull as soon as possible.
In 1970, a documentary titled “Heartbeat in the Brain” was produced and directed by a 27-year-old woman named Amanda Feilding. The film depicts Feilding, who was an ardent supporter of trephination, preforming the procedure on herself with a dental drill. These nausea inducing scenes are shown alternately with images of Amanda’s pet pigeon, Birdie. Her attempt at levity, perhaps? One can only guess. The film which was thought to be lost for decades turned up for a showing at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts back in 2011. No word on what became of it after that exhibition. If you’re interested, I discovered that you can view portions of Amanda’s lost film in a 1998 documentary “A Hole in the Head” which is available in it’s entirety on YouTube.
Restak, Richard (2000) ‘Fixing the Brain’. Mysteries of the Mind. Washington D.C. National Geographic Society
Tiesler Blos, Vera (2003) Cranial Surgery in Ancient Mesoamerica (PDF) Mesowb