Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Holy Item Made from the Bones of the Dead

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.

The cup has a stand and lid of beaten copper and is inset with turquoise and agate stones. Three larger skull heads project above the rim and the lid has a dedication in Lautsa script.
Tibetan Skull Cup

At first glance, this cup may appear quite grisly. It’s made from a human skull. Yet this is a highly sacred relic. It is most likely the skull of a respected priest or lama, and would have been retrieved from a cremation or funeral pyre, to be used for religious offerings at a Buddhist monastery. 

Detail of a Tibetun Skull cup showing a gold skull  decoration
Tibetan Skull Cup - Gold Skull Decoration
The skull cup dates from 1880 – 1910, and has a copper cover and base, with beaten out letters in Lautsa script, and inlays of turquoise and agate. If you look carefully you can see skull-like heads round the edge. They almost look like characters from a comic. Only a few cultures make holy items directly from the bones of the dead, and of these Tibet is the most famous.
Inside the Tibetan skull cup showing the lines of the skull plates
Inside the Tibetan Skull Cup

Tibet is a region in Asia, north-east of the Himalayas. It has been occupied by China since 1959, although the Tibetans have fought to be independent. Tibet's leader is called His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He is very highly respected in most countries throughout the world. Some of his quotes below give you an idea about his beliefs:
  • Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
  • Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
  • All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness - the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.


Detail of a Tibetan Skull cup showing a row of smaller gold skulls along the rim
Tibetan Skull Cup (detail)



Cremation - Funeral of a body by burning

Pyre - Structure to burn a body for a funeral

Monastery - A place where monks or nuns live and pray

Lama - High priest

Relic - Part of the body of a saint or a very important religious person

Lautsa script - Type of Chinese writing

Turquoise - Blue semi-precious stone

Agate - Semi-precious stone sometimes red in colour

Discussion Ideas

  • Items like these are important as they make us challenge ideas about death and dead bodies that we usually think of as unacceptable. What are your views about this object?
  • How do we respond to death in our own different societies today?
  • Do we respect and care for our older people properly?
  • Is death spoken about? Are we afraid of it?
  • What is a 'good death'? There may be people from other cultures in your school who have different beliefs and ideas. Find out about the things you have in common.


Activity Ideas

  • Research about the current Dalai Lama. Write down ten key points about his influence today
  • Refer to the Google map below and research about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. What relevance does its geographical location have on political agendas?
  • Write some ideas of your own about what should or could happen to Tibet in the next ten years.