Sunday, January 31, 2010

Overmodeled skulls

1st image: The surviving facial portion of a Columbian overmodeled skull. Photo by Felipe Cardenas-Arroyo and the Columbian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH). 2nd image: Overmodeled skull from the New Hebrides island of Malakula, Vanuatu. 3rd image: Overmodeled skull from Vanuatu exhibiting intentional cranial deformation. 4th image: Overmodeled skull from Vanuatu with human hair wig anchored with vegetal cords and spider web. Photos by Rob Roy, courtesy of Andrea Kirkpatrick and the New Brunswick Museum, St. John, NB, Canada.

To overmodel a human skull is to apply a malleable substance to the bare bone of its facial aspect and to sculpt the outer surface to resemble the soft tissue and appearance of a human countenance, as has been done to the skulls in the photographs above. This turquoise skull from Mexico does not fit the definition, because it is merely decorated, and neither do death masks. Now that we've clarified that, let me tell you about a new book:

Art Auferheide, legendary paleopathologist and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has examined more mummies than anyone on earth and wrote the encyclopedic The Scientific Study of Mummies. Several years ago, he turned his attention to a specific type of skull mask or trophy sometimes seen with the mummies he has studied and he has just published Overmodeled Skulls. Traveling both hemispheres, tapping the knowledge of museum curators, and seeking the contributions of archaeologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists, Dr. Aufderheide fills in the gap between the skulls from Jericho (7,000 B.C.) and those from modern Melanesia (where overmodeling has been practiced in living memory): the secular and spiritual myths behind the customs and of course the meticulous crafting of these sometimes sinister and sometimes comical objects.

The stated purpose of the book is to identify all known or reported examples of overmodeling and to gather the existing ethnological, historical, and archaeological information about each of the dozen cultures - spread apart geographically (among them Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Egypt, and Ukraine) and chronologically (Neolithic to now) – which practiced this mortuary ritual. The compilation of all this material was no mean feat. The scientific collection of specimens commodified (and therefore presumably tainted) overmodeling and probably encouraged stealing skulls from local burial grounds. In addition, procurement from non-literate societies by other than systematic excavation (for instance, by purchase, donation, or confiscation) makes the specimens difficult to interpret.

The stories of skull overmodeling involve ancestor veneration, funerary rituals, skull cults, secret societies, initiation ceremonies, exhumation and excarnation, trophy skulls, headhunting raids, and trepanation. These sculpted skulls were used to remember, to divine, to harness the powers of the dead. The general reader, who will find the size of the type very friendly and will have access to glossaries for a couple of the chapters, will be intrigued by data gathered by an anthropologist who lived with one tribe from 1876 to 1906 and by descriptions of the practice of cranial deformation, the related creation of mortuary effigies and skull puppets, and the preparation of the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile. The scientist will have a thorough bibliography, a synopsis of the geographic and environmental motivators of the custom, the anthropological analysis of 39 of the skulls, and the results of CT scans, dental analysis, and radio-carbon dating. A majority – but not all - of the skulls are adult males, most had crudely shaped ears, many had wigs, several were meant to be worn as masks, some held the mandible in place with string and had lost teeth replaced. They were in part portraiture, as evidenced by the modeling of a harelip and the reproduction of correctly-proportioned noses.

Overmodeled Skulls is distributed by Jim Castner's Feline Press for $75 plus shipping. Its 360 pages contain 140 color photographs. Recommended, and if you want to get a discount, order it in combination with Castner's equally fascinating Shrunken Heads ($100 for both, plus shipping). Good reads – and, they'll be a provocative addition to your coffee table!

1 comment:

  1. It is a great book, I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in bioarchaeology and human remains

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