‘Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found’ reviewed by Professor Caroline Wilkinson

‘Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found’ by Frances Larson (W.W. Norton & Company, INC., 2014). 

9781783780556This book aims to describe the historical significance, context and impact of human heads as collectable items and to discuss preserved heads as specimens of interest, revulsion and fascination. The prologue begins with the story of Oliver Cromwell’s preserved head from its exhumation and humiliation in 1661 to its private display at dinner parties in the 19th century. This story sets the scene for the running theme throughout this book; the conflict of our moral and emotional revulsion to severed heads with the overwhelming magnetism, novelty and intimacy of such objects.

The introduction dispels the myth that severed heads are unusual and ancient, and exposes a little-known aspect of our cultural fabric where these trophies have value, impact and attraction. The author also describes her path to writing this book, with its origins in the history of the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford and its inspiration from its shrunken head display and the skull collection housed in the Department of Anatomy at Oxford University. The author is an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford and has a background in medical journalism, history and museum research. Larson’s horror at the act of decapitation, in combination with her recognition of the power of these artefacts, makes the book both compelling and confronting. The introduction ends with an anatomical account of the physical challenges associated with human decapitation and the related speed of death.

Chapter 1 relates to shrunken heads (or tsantsas) originating from South America and starts with a description of the display at the Pitts Rivers Museum. The head shrinking tradition of the Shuar population is explained and the spiritual significance of these trophies for the 19th century tribes is examined. Interestingly, the main focus of this chapter is the condemnation of the European ‘guns for heads’ trade that resulted in a macabre souvenir industry and indiscriminate bloodthirsty head hunters who murdered, exploited the unclaimed dead and robbed graves. The author exposes the Western fascination with the racist, colonial idea of a savage people, the resulting tourist demand for these artefacts and its influence on the lives of the Shuar people. Larson highlights the hypocrisy of a society that simultaneously condemns these barbaric practices whilst condoning the commercial trade that creates the environment to perpetuate the practice. The chapter ends with a damning account of how 19th century European scientists were professionally encouraged to collect heads, excusing criminal behaviour and looting under the guise of scientific study. The author questions if the utilisation of depersonalising records that reduce human remains to museum artefacts promoted the legitimacy of the scientific endeavours and in contrast relates a shocking case that caught the attention of the media and incited public outrage in 1890. These are the questions that interest Larson and throughout the rest of this book she returns to this dichotomy, to appreciate our revulsion and explore our brutality. This chapter ends with a sobering postscript that reveals how European and American collectors are viewed as dangerous head hunters, who rob graves and kill children, by the islanders of Southeast Asia.

Chapter 2 examines trophy heads, primarily those taken in modern warfare. Larson provides multiple examples of head hunting by Western and Allied troops in the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War, along with the startling forensic report statistic that 60% of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Marianna Islands in 1984 were headless. She states that many skulls found their way to the USA and ‘field stripping’ was ubiquitous. The chapter considers the necessary dehumanisation of the enemy a primary cause of such atrocities and describes the racial prejudices that informed these conflicts and others, such as the war in Vietnam, where head trophies also became common. But Larson also discusses the cathartic and therapeutic effect that these trophies had on some soldiers, where the empowerment created by decapitation asserted control in the chaos of war.

Chapter 3 offers a relevant and disturbing examination of the magnetism of execution, starting with a discussion of hostage executions by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and the media and public response to the internet availability of such footage. The fact that decapitation videos draw viewers in their millions with a strategic impact is considered and compared to the large raucous crowds at ancient execution events. This chapter also examines the methods of decapitation from ‘respectful’ sword execution with the victim in a kneeling or seated position to ‘demeaning’ face-down axe blows, and reveals reports of the public reaction to clumsy executioners, the creation of the decapitation machine (Guillotine) and the last words of the condemned person. The chapter finishes with a section on the responsibility of the media in relation to Internet images and the power of the crowd to refuse to watch such footage.

Chapter 4 considers how artists have depicted severed heads as the ultimate portrait. Decapitation is described as opening up a space for artists to wrestle with their demons and contemplate their own mortality, with some artists lingering over the horror creating almost erotic scenes, whilst others are unforgivingly explicit and brutal. The chapter ends with a discussion of the place of art in the anatomy room and the profound experience of drawing a dissected human head. This is an interesting addition to the moral debate, and returns to the recognisable motif of the dichotomy between revulsion and fascination, brutality and humanity.

Chapter 5 relates to relics and heads that have religious, social or political significance and the link between preservation and ‘magical’ qualities. This includes shrines of the mummified heads of Saints, the medicinal products of powdered heads of criminals and Egyptian mummies, and the curiosity surrounding the naturally mummified heads of historical figures. Larson describes the modern depiction of Simon of Sudbury’s head using forensic techniques as “glorious immortality” and compares the preserved heads to time travellers.

Chapter 6 examines skull collections, especially those that proliferated throughout the 19th century and provides a context for this scientific craze. This includes the rise and fall of phrenology, the growth of craniometry, and appropriation of biological anthropology to promote theories of racial superiority. This seems to be the weakest chapter, as this subject could be a book in itself and so the inclusion in one chapter seems superficial. In addition, the jump from severed heads to skulls in this context seems awkward, as there are many other examples of the collection, decoration and impact of skulls that have not been included. This chapter ends with the use of modern craniometric software, the condemnation of ancestry determination from skull measurements and a discussion relating to the repatriation of the skulls of indigenous populations to the country of origin.

Chapter 7 offers further insight into the dissection of human heads for anatomical education purposes. This chapter relates the conflicting feelings triggered by the study of anatomy through human dissection, and specifically in relation to the identification of the donor through contemplation of the facial appearance. Larson explains the physical challenges associated with human dissection along with discordant emotional responses, especially when dissecting the head of the donor, which is described as being the source of identity and humanity. Larson also considers defleshing methods and the disrespectful treatment of bodies of the poor prior to the 1961 Human Tissue Act. Finally the history of brain dissection, preservation and collection is considered including brain clubs and brain databases for neurological research.

The final chapter refers to attempts to preserve life in decapitated heads and describes 19th century experiments to reanimate animal and human heads with electric stimulation and artificial blood circulation. Larson deals with the philosophical question of the definition of death and whether or not personality and identity is solely a product of the brain and head. Experiments recording the movements and responses of decapitated heads following the Guillotine are recounted in order to debate the implications of conscious decapitation and pain of death. Finally Larson describes cryonics and neurosuspension utilised to preserve the head in order to resurrect the person in the future when medical advances allow.

The conclusion refers to all aspects of detachment associated with severed heads, from the social detachment that precedes the decapitation act, the physical detachment of the head from the body and finally the emotional detachment or desensitisation of the observer. But Larson counters this with a summary of the intimacy, fascination and humility associated with the observation of severed heads and how they remind us of our own fragility and humanity.

I would recommend this book to students of anthropology, anatomy and art, who will be fascinated by the emotions that these descriptions and artefacts provoke in themselves and others. In addition, it is a grisly and horrifying account of the history of human science, endeavour and collection that will captivate any member of the public who enjoys a challenging and persuasive story. As long as they have a strong stomach!


Reviewed by Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of Face Lab and Director of Liverpool School of Art & Design. Her research includes the facial depiction of human remains for archaeological investigation and forensic identification and she has depicted the faces of Richard III, Mary Queen of Scots and St Nicholas. She is author of Forensic Facial Reconstruction, co-editor of Craniofacial Identification and co-author of The Lewis Chessmen: New Perspectives and has worked in the field of craniofacial identification, forensic art and archaeological reconstruction for over 20 years.

Correspondence to Professor Caroline Wilkinson

Face Lab, Liverpool School of Art & Design @FaceLabLJMU

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