From head-shrinking to skull-seeking: a history of the severed head

A review of Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Lanson. A grimly amusing and possibly definitive survey of a disquieting subject  

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found Frances Larson

Granta, pp.317, £20, ISBN: 9781783780556

A severed head, argues Frances Larson in her sprightly new book, is ‘simultaneously a person and a thing… an apparently impossible duality… an intense incongruity’. History is ‘littered’ with such heads. Pilgrims visit them: the heads of St Peter and St Paul, for example, are thought to be in the high altar of the Basilica of St John Lateran. Artists are inspired by them, especially the erotically charged ones in the stories of Salome and Judith. Medical students dissect them, thereby acquiring the ‘necessary inhumanity’ of their profession. And Americans pay $50,000 to have their own heads cut off — cryonicists prefer the term ‘cephalic isolation’ — and preserved in thermos flasks of liquid nitrogen. ‘Could decapitation,’ asks Larson, ‘be just another stage in a person’s life?’

She begins her story at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (of which she has co-written a history), where shrunken heads — tsantsas — are displayed in the ‘treatment of dead enemies’ section. They were made about a century ago by the Shuar tribe of Peru and Ecuador, by removing the skull, flesh and muscle, then repeatedly filling the skin with hot sand and pebbles; the idea was to harness the power of the soul, and once that had been achieved, in ceremonies that lasted years, the heads were disposable.

Some were sold to travellers, and demand for them grew in Europe and America. The Shuar wanted guns, which were much better for headhunting than spears, and the price established for one gun was one shrunken head; so some Shuar began to murder for the market, and tsantsas became ‘a kind of macabre tourist art’. Of the 10 heads in the Pitt Rivers, two turn out to be of sloths, two of howler monkeys, and of the six human ones three are ‘fakes’. The toi moko, the preserved and tattooed heads of the Maoris, tell a similar story. It sometimes happened that European visitors to New Zealand were killed, to have their heads removed, tattooed and sold to other travellers.

Who were the real headhunters, then, ‘them’ or ‘us’? In the 19th century, with the rise of such new disciplines as craniology and ethnology, scientifically-minded explorers began collecting heads from ‘primitive’ societies, robbing graves to do so. Wary of white headhunters, natives of Java and Indonesia buried their dead by night. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all lost their skulls to souvenir seekers. ‘To be gnawed out of our graves,’ wrote Thomas Browne in 1658, ‘to have our skulls made drinking-bowls… are tragical abominations.’ His own was dug up in 1840, to be exhibited at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum.

Larson is alert to irony. Criminals have been publicly beheaded for millennia. From the 14th to the 17th centuries, a Keeper of the Heads lived in the gatehouse on London Bridge, employed to arrange fresh heads to dramatic effect and to throw old ones into the river. Executioners were often drunk, and a common excuse for a botched job was that, seeing double, they had hacked at the wrong head. In 1488 Claus Flügge, the executioner at Hamburg, beheaded 79 pirates in rapid succession. Asked by the city senate how he felt, he said, ‘I could easily go on and do away with the entire Wise and Honourable Senate,’ for which insolence he lost his own head. After the French Revolution the guillotine, or ‘national razor’, was far too quick and unspectacular for the mob, who bayed for the return of the old wooden gallows.

These days criminals have taken to publicly beheading the innocent. There is a massive difference, of course, a hideous inversion, but in both cases the event is a theatrical one, intended to create terror, and in both the audience is complicit. In May 2004 Nick Berg became the first American to be beheaded in Iraq; the video of his murder was the most popular internet search item in the United States for a week, and the second most popular for a month, after American Idol. As Larson observes: ‘The real power of the crowd lies in the possibility that we might decide not to watch.’

Severed offers a scholarly, grimly amusing and possibly definitive survey of an often disquieting subject.

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Show comments
  • john lyttle

    So… you’re saying Frances Larson gives good head?

    • Jaysonrex

      So it seems!

  • Swanky

    Shrunken heads I saw at Balboa Park in San Diego. Heads the size of a small fist. Incredible. Their lips were sewn shut: you saw the long dark threads.

    It sometimes happened that European visitors to New Zealand were killed, to have their heads removed, tattooed and sold to other travellers.
    A nice corrective to the idea that the New Zealanders, native and imported, have always lived in perfect understanding and harmony.