:: Article

In consideration of the head: A review of Severed by Frances Larson

By Thom Cuell.


Frances Larson, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (Granta, 2014)

In the early 1950s, my grandfather Alan Cuell was called up for national service and sent to the rainforests of Borneo. On his first patrol, he was ordered to bring up the rear of the regiment; the only person behind him was the local Dayak guide. Alan had barely been outside Essex before, so he was intrigued by the guide’s traditional costume, particularly the items dangling from the man’s waist. Asking what they were, he was disconcerted when the translator replied, “Shrunken heads.” He spent the remainder of the patrol in constant fear that his next step would be his last, later describing it as the most terrifying experience of his life.

What Frances Larson sets out to demonstrate in Severed is that the significance of decapitated heads to the Dayak people is not as exotic as it must have seemed to my grandfather – from medieval times to the present day, severed heads have featured with at least equal prominence in European culture. It’s not all about the spectacle of heads on pikes, either: “Over the centuries,” she argues, “human heads have embellished almost every facet of our society, from the scaffold to the cathedral, and from the dissecting room to the art gallery.” This fascination with the head is reflected in our everyday speech — how often do we refer to someone putting their head on the block, or keeping their head while all those around are losing theirs?

If Alan had ever been to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, he might have seen their famous display of shrunken heads collected by the Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru. Displayed in amongst a collection of ceremonial knives and trephination tools, the heads are regarded as one of the main attractions of the museum, with school-children and tourists crowding in to get a glimpse of them.

Larson’s examination of the shrunken heads reveals a surprising underlying dynamic: many were created specifically to meet demand from Western traders in the nineteenth century. The Shuar in fact saw the head as rather insignificant compared to the power of the soul within. The head, once shrunken, is like an envelope after the letter has been taken out. As trade increased, the heads “lost their spiritual power and became commercial products; now some Shuar simply murdered people in order to sell their heads. In this way, Europeans and Americans helped to create the indiscriminate, bloodthirsty headhunters they expected to find.” In the present day too, Western culture seems to place more importance on the heads than the people who collected them do. As Larson points out, “It is not the Shuar who are pressing their noses to the glass of an exhibition case in an Oxford University museum.”

In recent years, there has been a debate over the ethics of displaying these grisly relics, with campaigners arguing that heads should be sent back to their native land for burial. However, in contrast to the Maori of New Zealand, there has been no claims from Shuar people for the heads to be returned. This partly reflects the lack of cultural importance afforded to the shrunken heads, but there is a further motive, according to Larson: Shuar visitors to other museums, notably the American Museum of Natural History in New York, have felt that the heads “created an important connection between their people and the people of New York City.”

Of the ten shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum, two are sloth heads, two are howler monkeys, and three were created specifically as goods to be traded. The remaining three are genuine cultural artefacts which “tell a nuanced tale of murderous acts that were condoned by the society where they were made, that had deep spiritual significance and that played their part in the cycle of life through the generations.” The commercially traded heads, by contrast, “tell of the nameless dead… who, after their deaths, became the victims of an exotic trade in exotic collectibles that had little to do with the indigenous beliefs of the inhabitants of the Amazon jungle.”

Robley with mokomokai collection

The display of heads in museums, then, can “help us to confront the complexities of foreign engagement with South American culture… [and] also the notion that when we stare through the glass case at shrunken heads in a British museum, they are somehow nothing to do with us.” In fact, in countries like Indonesia, Borneo and Malaysia, Westerners have often been regarded as headhunters — hardly surprising, since “British and American collectors spent a considerable amount of time asking for people’s heads…and many took the trouble to open graves and rob people of their skulls.”

Of course, shrunken heads are the exception, an extreme example of the fascination with skulls which permeates our culture. Before going any further, it is worth considering the head as a physical artefact. It accommodates four of the five senses, as well as the brain, is made up of twenty bones, and has up to thirty-two teeth; it is ornamented with hair, ears, nose and lips, which can all be ornamented in their turn. The human brain is significantly larger than that of other primates, and the head has grown in order to accommodate it. In evolutionary terms, this comes at a cost, as Yuval Noah Harari notes in Sapiens. While the development of a larger brain should be a no-brainer, “the fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It is not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a giant skull… archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied.”

Removing a human head is surprisingly difficult, as generations of medical students have discovered during dissection classes. This hasn’t prevented it from being hacked off throughout all of history with great enthusiasm: the figure of the headman, axe or sword in hand, is ingrained in our history, as are iconic heads such as those belonging to Anne Boleyn and Louis XIV, which decorate the cover of Larson’s book. Decapitation even features in the playground rhyme, “Here comes the candle to light you to bed, here comes the chopper to chop off your head”.

As a method of execution, beheading is relatively quick and humane (the guillotine was designed as an alternative to the bloody spectacle of breaking on the wheel, or decapitation by sword or axe, which often took multiple blows), and, as such, was largely reserved for nobility — until it was democratised by the French Revolution. In purely mechanical terms, the guillotine was a huge success. At the height of the Terror, the executioner Sansom was able to dispatch a group of fifty condemned ‘conspirators’ in just twenty-eight minutes. However, the swiftness of death took the spectacle of execution away, and crowds soon became bored by it. This created its own problems: when severed heads become mundane and lose their spectacle, then society can tolerate extreme death tolls. The painter Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun said in her memoirs, “If the victims of these terrible times had not been so proud, had not met death with such courage, the Terror would have ended much sooner.” It is hard to imagine crowds tolerating similar numbers being disembowelled or broken on the wheel.

Nowadays, decapitation is seen as unacceptable even by many countries which still employ the death penalty. Alternatives such as lethal injection, gas chamber and electrocution have all been tried, even though none is as swift or as apparently painless as the guillotine. When decapitation is practiced, it has become a shocking spectacle once again. In his history of the war on drugs, Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari describes the way that Mexican drug gangs used beheadings to intimidate their rivals and gain a competitive advantage through their brutality. Groups such as ISIS have provoked similar reactions through their carefully stage-managed ‘beheading events’, which are disseminated on social media. Larson handles these events with an admirable sense of academic detachment, but it would have been interesting to see her explore this area in more depth: as it is, they feel slightly brushed over.

While heads severed by executioners are used to intimidate, other severed heads have had a more empowering effect. The disembodied head of the seventeenth century Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett, displayed in Drogheda in Ireland, has become a popular site of pilgrimage for Catholics from around the world, and was the focus of a successful campaign for Plunkett’s beatification. Many Italian churches also feature heads as relics, many of which have been imbued with healing powers. Traditionally, these heads are granted a great deal of autonomy, and seem to approve of being on display; Larson writes that there are “more than 150 known cases in which martyrs pick up their own severed heads and walk to chosen spots”, occasionally preaching sermons en route.

Severed heads have multiple secular uses too, from science to the arts. In the nineteenth century, scientists inspired by Franz Joseph Gall built up enormous collections of heads from around the world, which they measured in the hopes of building up a theory of phrenology, or the ‘science’ of determining a person’s character through the study of their head. This theory was thought to have particular implications for racial theory and criminology, but, as Larson demonstrates, their research was chaotic and failed to uncover any proofs.

Human heads are just as vital to modern scientists. Larson writes affectingly about the emotional difficulties many face when asked to anatomise a human head for the first time. Reactions range from natural disgust to wonder: as one says, “You’d be awed by what simply surrounds the eye and allows you to blink or squint.”

In art, skulls and severed heads have often been used as memento mori, a reminder of death’s inevitability. Artists such as Caravaggio have even depicted their own decapitated heads in paintings. In recent times, Marc Quinn and Damian Hirst have continued this tradition. Hirst caused controversy with his photograph With Dead Head, which showed the 16-year old artist smiling next to a severed head in a Leeds mortuary. He was attacked for a lack of respect, and for posing with an identifiable head without securing anyone’s permission. Explaining the photograph, Hirst stated that his smile “seemed to sum up this problem between life and death. It was such a ridiculous way of…being at the point of trying to come to terms with it, especially being sixteen and everything: this is life and this is death. And I’m trying to work it out.”

Damian Hirst

This attempt to gain control over his fear of mortality has become a theme of Hirst’s work, and is most famously explored in his 2007 sculpture For The Love of God, a cast of an eighteenth century skull decorated with over 8,000 diamonds. The art historian Rudi Fuchs observed in 2007 that the piece “proclaims victory over decay”. Much as the Shuar people regarded skulls as little more than receptacles for the soul, Hirst attempted to rob the skull of its psychological weight, transforming it from a symbol of decay into a gaudy decoration. Soldiers in battle zones have employed similar methods of rationalisation down the centuries – during World War II, for instance, American troops fighting in the Pacific frequently collected skulls as battlefield souvenirs, often turning them into candle holders or inkwells.

As Larson says, the human head holds a seemingly inexhaustible fascination in our culture: “the dead human face is a siren: dangerous but irresistible.” Through her research she has identified a wide range of locations in which severed heads play a role in shaping culture, and she analyses these incidences with wit and insight. While our first thoughts may be of medieval executions, or ‘exotic’ cultures, Larson demonstrates that severed heads can be found all around us: in churches, galleries and medical schools. One of theatre’s most memorable non-speaking roles is performed by a skull — that of Yorrick in Hamlet — and new developments in facial imaging allow us to feel closer to our ancestors by providing realistic portraits of them based on the evidence of their severed heads. While the Shaur people believe that the skull is little more than a repository for the soul, Larson argues that much of our humanity is located here: the severed head allows us a sense of the individual’s personality, and can be a potent totem. It is this potency which led the racist phrenologists of the nineteenth century to believe that they could divine characteristics through measuring the skull. Religions, artists and tyrants alike have understood the visceral power of displaying a severed head in public, whether as an object of veneration, abomination or fascination.

Today, people can pay for their heads to be preserved after their death, in the hope that they will one day be bought back to life thanks to neurosuspension. Whereas historically only martyrs and notorious criminals would have their heads preserved for posterity, cryonic suspension allows anyone to have their head preserved (for a fee), to be analysed or even reanimated by future generations. If the technology is successful, then rather than being a fatal blow, the severing of the head may become our path to immortality.

Thom Cuell

Thom Cuell is the Managing Director of indie publishing house Dodo Ink, and runs a quarterly literary salon in London. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Manchester. You can find more of his writing on the literary blog Workshy Fop, and on Twitter.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 1st, 2015.