Book Review: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson (Pt. 4 of ‘Headhunters…’ Series)

As part of the Head Hunters series, I asked some brilliant anthro friends to write reviews for a couple of books that deal with the issue of anthropologists and our history and relationships with skulls.

Review by Danamarie Donatelli, Anthropologist and Researcher

Contributor 

 

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

New York, NY: Liveright (November 2, 2015) 336 pages, $15.95 USD Kindle version, ISBN: 978-1631490996

 

Frances Larson begins with the story of Oliver Cromwell’s head and its extraordinary journey, from once being attached to his body to becoming a spectacle piece brought out at dinner parties in the mid to late 1800s, as a way to show our two main assumptions about human heads are all wrong. The two most common assumptions: detached human heads are thought to be unusual in our sterile twenty-first century and secondly, they are old by today’s standards. Over the course of her book, Larson shows how skulls are just as much a part of our collective fascination today as they were in what is described as more macabre and barbaric times of our history. 

Heads come in more ways than one- a point creatively made by Larson through her chapter titles. They can be shrunken, considered trophies and relics, severed, dissected, and even still attached and living. Heads are both objects and persons, depending on who they were in life and how their head exists in death. Larson provides one of the best examples of this when sharing how the Shuar people (indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru) were thought of as uncivilized headhunters, yet their shrunken heads or tsantsas were a prized possession for museums and scientists alike in the West. Once ritual objects that held power and meaning to the Shuar and were kept for years in the family, became so deeply sought after as curiosities or trinkets for Western appetites that the Shuar began to kill women and children and skip the ceremonies they once performed to meet demand and trade for guns. The Shuar took a life and created a tsantsas to harness the power and spirit of that man, but by the end of the practice, it became little more than a way to make tourist souvenirs. 

Larson doesn’t just highlight the colonial encounters with heads as objects or the curatorial vigor with which the West gazed about the skulls and heads of the no-Western world. She talks about the entertainment and public spectacle of severing heads as punishment in Western society. Individuals would pay to be closer to the action or pay hefty sums for the blood of the severed head in hopes of curing various ailments of the head and mind. Larson makes connections between the art and imagery of seductive women holding disembodied heads, while men cradled the crania of enemies as a show of strength and order. 

“Skull stewing”during the Pacific War. Skulls supposedly worth cash or trade from US merchant marine sailors. Image: Public Domain, 1944

Trophy heads taken by US soldiers from Asian countries over numerous conflicts were believed to be a way of survival and dealing with the emotional tolls of warfare. Larson also puts forward details about this behavior not recorded in warfare in other Western countries where US had involvement. Many of these gruesome “trophies” were taken less than fifty years ago despite having been (and still being) illegal as defined by the 1929 Geneva Convention. 

 

While graves are no longer robbed in the middle of the night or foreigners killed for their skulls, new heads crop up at a consistent rate. Now behind closed doors and sterile environments bodies and heads alike are donated, turned into study models, turned into art, or used as teaching tools for the next generation of medical students and anatomists. The lure of skulls and heads continues to permeate for a variety of reasons within the human experience.

Larson does an excellent job weaving together stories, accounts, and studies in a way that would allow the curious to pick it up and learn about the fascination with heads, then and now. At times Severed becomes repetitive and in a few chapters, the history is out of order and jostled as a way to connect back to previous topics. A few times the irony of the West considering themselves civilized while employing less than civilized tactics to obtain their collections is noted but is not fully explored. 

While Larson identifies as an anthropologist, the book, listed as a History, could easily be used as reading material for undergraduate students in pre-med, sociology, and anthropology as either required or recommended reading. The book is easy to follow without being bogged down by jargon and includes quips of humor that keeps it interesting and relevant. If Larson ever expanded on a section more directly dedicated to how white Western scientists/ naturalists used their appetite and intrigue with severed heads to villainize cultures and the construct racial typologies, such perspective would be a real benefit. She does give mention to phrenology and craniology but does not fully encompass how the effects of these wildly inaccurate practices continue to be deployed today even though both are regarded as pseudo-sciences. 

An enjoyable book that makes you want to share what you read to others, Severed works as an introduction to the history of bodies and what we have done to them. Neither unusual nor old, the curiosity behind heads continues in politics, religion, science, and beyond.