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The Painted Skulls of Halstatt

20. 6. 2008

The Painted Skulls of Halstatt

Located in the little Austrian village of Halstatt, The Painted Skulls Ossuary is one of the most bizarre tourist attractions in the world.

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Halstatt is known as the oldest continuous human settlement, with archeological finds dating back to 5000 BC. It’s one of the most beautiful lakeside mountain resorts on the face of the Earth, but tourists come here not primarily for the breathtaking scenery, but for something many people might find rather disturbing, a crypt filled with human skulls.

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The Halstatt Painted Skulls Ossuary was built back in the 12th century when the village was flourishing, the population exceeded 3000 souls and there was no more room in the cemetery, so the authorities had to come up with some kind of solution. They decided to “rent” graves, if you will, bodies would be buried for only 10-15 years before being dug up, and the skulls removed, in order to make room for other corpses. The skull would then be cleaned and exposed to sun and moon light for weeks, until they became bleach-white, before being placed in their final resting place, the ossuary.

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The tradition of skull painting began in 1790, when members of the deceased’s family started painting flowers and crowns of flowers because, they couldn’t decorate the grave with flowers, now could they? Some of the skulls also have the name of the deceased painted on them, the dates of birth and death and some kind of symbol depicting the cause of death. As you can see from the photos some of the paintings are really beautiful, you just have to get passed the fact that they are skulls.

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Nowadays Halstatt has less than 1000 inhabitants and each one could keep their place in the cemetery if they wanted to, but ever since 1960 cremation is preferred most times. The last time a skull was placed in the ossuary was in 1997, but if anyone wants to have their skull hosted by this unusual tourist attraction, all they have to do is make a special request and it will be done.

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Surely the 610 painted skulls of the Halstatt ossuary aren’t a sight for everyone’s eyes, but, those who find them to creepy to look at can have a great time visiting the oldest salt mines in the world, the Catholic parish church or simply hiking and enjoying the wonderful mountain-lakeside landscape.