Frances Larson - A serious and seriously entertaining exploration of the dark and varied obsessions that the “civilized West” has had with decapitated heads and skulls.
Frances Larson, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, Granta, 2014.
Larson (An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World) delves into the grotesque yet wildly fascinating topic of decapitation. She begins her story by offering an explanation as to why disembodied heads have maintained such novelty over time: it’s because a severed head is “simultaneously a person and a thing.” Beheadings have always captivated, as can been seen from the popularity of historical tales, such as the exhumation and decapitation of Oliver Cromwell (his head then circulated a series of private collectors and was finally buried—the exact resting place a secret), and the frequency of contemporary internet searches for the decapitation of prisoners by terrorists. Larson mentions three contexts in which heads, sans body, have been prominent: in soldiers’ homes as war trophies, in the market that was created to sell shrunken heads to European travelers, and in science labs that conduct research on heads. Perhaps more relevantly for most readers, severed heads have been a noteworthy feature of many museums and religious iconography. Larson’s lively, conversational tone turns these morbid objects into something more meaningful than a mere expression of the macabre. - Publishers Weekly
Larson (Honorary Research Fellow/Univ. of Durham; An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World, 2009) explores our morbid preoccupation with the grotesque, as typified by the value we place on severed heads.
Not only do severed heads appear in museums and similar collections, but “[v]ideos of beheadings have been uploaded online by terrorists and murderers in recent years and downloaded by millions of Europeans and Americans to watch in their own homes.” The author explains that this book was an offshoot of her interest in how museum collections are curated, but she was soon drawn to a different reality. A skull, she writes, is the tidied-up end product of “the act of decapitation…the brutality that is required to behead a person, and the varied conditions under which that brutality is unleashed.” She finds evidence that the practice of tribal headhunting was more a business transaction with representatives of collectors than a pagan religious rite; in the late 19th century, there was “a booming international trade in shrunken heads.” Shakespeare expresses the symbolic power of a severed head—now an object but once the seat of our personhood—when Hamlet contemplates the soul of Yorick. Larson examines beyond the horrific instances of terrorist beheadings of hostages, and she delves into the degraded treatment of dead Japanese soldiers by American GIs who desecrated their remains. “All the World War II trophy skulls so far recorded by forensic scientists in America are Japanese,” writes Larson, “and there are no records of trophy heads taken in the European theater.” In the author’s opinion, the savagery expressed by these cases was not only occasioned by the brutality of battle conditions, but also by “the intense racial prejudices that informed these conflicts.” In fact, “soldiers often equated their job to hunting animals in the jungle.” Along with the history, the author supplies complementary photographs and illustrations.
An alternately intriguing and disturbing sidelight on our cultural values that is not for the squeamish.
- Kirkus Reviews
“[W]ide-ranging and thoughtful… In an age where so many taboos are fading, the severed head retains its dreadful and sacred power.” - Mike Jay
“No need to explain why this nonfiction book made the top of my list… Despite the ghoulish subject, this is a closely researched, indeed, scholarly study of the bizarre customs of hunting, collecting, trading, displaying and otherwise bonding with other people’s heads.” - Marilyn Stasio
On April 9 2004, the American engineer Nick Berg was kidnapped in Iraq. A month later, footage of his beheading was posted online, and was only removed when the website could not cope with the sudden surge of traffic it had attracted. Soon the top 10 internet search terms in the United States were all Berg-related, including “berg beheading” and “nick berg beheading’, and by the end of the month it was second only to American Idol in terms of its popular appeal.
That may be shocking, but it is hardly surprising. Berg’s video audience was merely a globally dispersed version of the mobs that have always been drawn to such bloody spectacles. For many centuries, the prospect of a public beheading drew huge crowds, who jeered at the executioner as he inexpertly hacked away, or waited to catch the blood (thought to contain magical healing properties) that spurted from the victim’s neck. As late as the mid-19th century, Dickens was irresistibly drawn to an execution in Rome, and although he reported that the local crowd showed a total lack of compassion, that did not prevent him from getting up close to the severed head and noticing that it had become “dull, cold, livid wax”, and was starting to attract flies.
According to Frances Larson, in her elegantly argued and grimly compelling survey, severed heads have a peculiar ability to dull our usual ethical responses. The act of physically detaching somebody’s head also involves a form of social detachment, as if we could only cope with the brutal task of cutting someone’s life short so abruptly by delegating it to someone else.
But that alone could not account for the sheer fascination that severed heads have possessed for many people, including mild-mannered scientists and mousy authors as well the more obviously bloodthirsty.
A severed head may look like a fat full stop, but it usually behaves more like a question-mark. The place where a head is divided from its body also marks an uncertain boundary between man’s physical and mental life. It reminds us that the human brain is housed within a skull that is destined to outlast it, like an envelope after the letter has been thrown away, and that anyone who believes in mind over matter must first confront the fact that the mind is matter. Not only that, but it is matter of a peculiarly vulnerable kind. It can be killed even without being touched; all it takes is a few whacks of the axe.A popular cultural emblem of this idea is Hamlet holding up Yorick’s skull in the graveyard. Once a man who told jokes, now Yorick cannot stop leering toothily at the world, like a comedian who knows that the ultimate punchline is death itself. No wonder Hamlet is so alarmed. Examining Yorick’s skull is like gazing into a mirror that works in time as well as space. This is what Hamlet, too, will become. This is what everyone will become.
That has not stopped researchers from trying to pluck some sort of sense from death’s mystery. One photograph reproduced by Larson shows staff at an army museum in Washington earnestly filling skulls with water in 1884 to test “the capacity of the cranial capacity”, but that is only the most literal way in which human heads have been used as containers. Once a skull’s original contents have been scooped out, it is easy to transform it into a vessel ready to be filled with new meanings. “A severed head can be many things,” Larson points out, “a loved one, a trophy, scientific data, criminal evidence, an educational prop, a religious relic…”
It can be a souvenir, like the boiled heads of Japanese soldiers that some troops sent home during the Second World War, in one case producing a magazine article in which a war bride was pictured staring soulfully at a gleaming specimen, like an American Hamlet confronting a Japanese Yorick. It can be a source of stories, like the man who was put to death in 1642 and later entertained the crowd even more when they used his head as a football. (As Larson mordantly observes, some heads “enjoy a more extensive social life after death than their owners did in life”.) It even lurks inside many common expressions, whether you are knocking someone’s block off or putting your own head on the block.
However, what distinguishes Larson’s writing is her insistence on the sheer physicality of her subject, such as the head of a young actress dug up after 10 days in the grave, by which time her flesh was “greenish-black”; or the effort required by a medical student to saw through a cadaver’s skull, followed by “sounds of tearing tissue” as the delicate brain is tugged free from its casing.
Some of her most startling examples involve attempts to prove that the mind can survive the death of the body. During the French Revolution, guillotined heads that appeared to blush or be aware of their surroundings led scientists to conduct experiments like shouting into their ears, or stuffing ammonia-soaked brushes into their nostrils. In the early 1800s, displays of electricity sometimes included a dog’s head being cut off and reanimated through probes that made its teeth chatter and eyes roll around. More recently, cryonics has allowed people to be “neurosuspended”, by having their heads removed immediately after death and frozen in nitrogen.
What links these activities is the hope that people do not merely have brains, in the way they might have arms or legs, but are their brains. To bring the brain back to life is to resurrect the person in whom it once resided. Currently that is medically impossible, even if it were morally desirable, but there is an alternative.
Larson does not go far down this path, merely pointing out that art has often engaged with the idea of disembodied heads, from the many paintings of Salome being presented with John the Baptist’s head on a salver, to Marc Quinn’s Self, a life-size sculpture of his head that is made from nine frozen pints of his own blood. But, of course, the dream of surviving your own death is also what animates Larson’s own chosen medium: writing. In this context, perhaps it is not surprising that when writers think about severed heads, they often enjoy imagining them as still alive in some way.
In traditional commedia dell’arte, the clown whose head is lopped off calmly picks it up and saunters away. In Keats’s poem Isabella, the heroine buries her lover’s head in a pot of basil and watches as it sprouts glossy new leaves. Most famously, in myth, Orpheus’s head is cut off but continues to sing as it bobs downriver. Seen from one perspective, the story is an eloquent proof of the mystery that a severed head has always represented to the living: a fragment of someone’s body that is also the centre of their personality. From another perspective, it reminds us that what comes out of our heads can hang around long after the rest of us has been reduced to dust. - Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Humans are easy to decapitate: Our large heads rest on little necks. Most mammals have thick muscles joining the shoulders with the base of the skull; ours are so slender that our spines show through the skin. It is the price tag of standing upright, of casting off the hominid hunch. “Heads,” writes Frances Larson in Severed, are “tempting to remove.” Above the shoulders, our anatomy resembles a teed-up golf ball.
Larson, an English anthropologist, thinks that before turning to the mind-body problem, we might consider the head-neck situation. She wrote the book, a survey of our “traditions of decapitation,” because she believes dead heads can tell us things about our souls: “What can we learn about our common humanity from this, the ultimate image of inhumanity?” The answers she provides to this question are fascinating and unexpected (as well as grisly and paradoxical). Beheading isn’t barbaric, if by that we mean archaic. On the contrary, it is modern, the dark side of the belief that “we are our brains.” Historically, it is the people who wanted to prove something, not those who wanted to hurt somebody, who have cut off the most heads. Science “excused a multitude of sins,” Larson writes, “particularly when the ‘subjects of study’ were impoverished, imprisoned or deemed to be primitive.” She distinguishes between “those people who are labeled” and “those who label people.” The labelers get away with murder (literally). In her story, curiosity opens the door to monsters.Of course, Larson is curious too, and curious about her curiosity. She knows it’s nasty but assumes she’s not alone—“part of the horror is that a severed head is so captivating.” Why does she want to see what repels her? The best sections of Severed look inward to these cringing urges, which run deep. “I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight,” wrote William Makepeace Thackeray in 1840, after the public execution of a murderer. The writer had gone to see the killer die live.
In nonfiction about death the personal anecdote is never far away. Larson first felt the pull of her strange topic at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford—i.e., “the place with the shrunken heads.” These heads (there are ten) arrived in England in the nineteenth century. The dark and detailed faces were small enough to hold in a hand. They were produced, according to ritual, by the Shuar, an Amazonian people of present-day Ecuador, and when they sold well the traders who’d acquired them went back for more. Headhunting had once been occasional, but the logic of the market took over: “Guns were used to take heads, which were, in turn, exchanged for more guns.” The Shuar beheaded each other, Europeans, dug-up corpses, even monkeys; it was hard to tell the difference once the heads were shrunk. Rumors of the killing made them seem more savage, which in turn made Europeans want more from them. “Visitors may see these exhibits . . . as the gruesome trophies of an untouched savage people,” Larson writes, “when what they are actually seeing are the gruesome trophies of a western fascination with the idea of an untouched savage people.”
In this manner, civilization gave birth to its nightmares, which episode Larson treats as typical. All of us are excited by what we fear—particularly, she suggests, if we are intellectuals. “Wonder and revulsion, ever in flux, are the twin responses to the study of ‘gross anatomy,’” Larson writes, and her prose displays both. About heads, she is of two minds. She wants to know more, and less. No kidding. A premed explains the trick to cutting up cadavers: “You don’t let yourself think about the fact . . . that the tongue has kissed someone.”
People in denial of the facts are always vulnerable to those who tell them what they want to hear. Dead heads are big with frauds. Churches in possession of skulls have been known to spread word of their magic properties. Victorians stole them from graves and used them to adorn their walls. Some rich people think they can live forever, thanks to cryogenics, if they agree to be beheaded after death. “Who would ever have dreamed that cutting off your mother’s head could be the ultimate act of caring love?” asks one son. That severed heads lend themselves to so much duplicity has to do with their essential doubleness. Both “unique” and “impersonal,” they span “the boundaries between persons and things.” They are the thing that stands in for nothingness, the ultimate memento mori—and the ideal prop for people looking to exploit the terror of others. Phrenologists used them to spin their theories of the races and potentates to assert their power. Artists saw in them, or tried to see, death itself, but as Damien Hirst put it, “When you’re actually confronted with that kind of thing . . . it just gets relocated somewhere else.”
It’s this desire to see what isn’t there—the secret of race, the enemy tamed, the cure for death, the essence of transience—that blinds people to the ugliness of what is. Larson’s diverse anecdotes leave a single impression: You cannot look at horrors without them tainting you. When the guillotine was introduced in France, in 1793, the crowds complained, but not about the carnage. They missed the spectacle of the manual style. No longer could a drunken executioner or a dull blade be counted on to spice things up. “Taking the drama out of death,” Larson warns, “is a dangerous ideal.”
There’s even less drama now. Larson tells the story of Nicholas Berg, an engineer who went to Iraq during the American invasion. Soon after his disappearance, in the spring of 2004, a video began to circulate. Men in black speak in Arabic; one has a knife; Berg, in orange, is seated. To see the actual beheading Americans had to go on the Internet. They googled for it—“beheading video,” “berg beheading.” In the weeks that followed, only queries for American Idol were more popular. A survey reported that half of those who had seen the “graphic content” felt they had made a “good decision.” The other half had made a bad one. Did they know more, or less? - James Camp
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found caught my eye while I was reading the "Briefly Noted" book section of The New Yorker sometime back. The idea that someone would write about the severed head's significance in the history of "the civilized West" appealed to my fascination with the strange so I knew I had to read it. After finishing the prologue about the history and fate of the head of Oliver Cromwell, I knew I'd found something deliciously different here -- and that I had to finish this book in one go.
Sadly, the spectacle of beheadings has come back into our lives full force with the public executions by radical terrorists in the Middle East after 9/11. In her chapter titled "Deposed Heads," the author notes that only a month after the beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the video made by his captors started circulating on the internet, and four months later the Boston Phoenix published a link on their website. When in May, 2004, engineer Nick Berg met the same fate, it only took days for the "unedited" video to be made available -- this time by Reuters, then picked up by US news networks. The online footage of the actual beheading
"remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week, and the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to 'American Idol.' "
Even worse, the Dallas Morning News printed a photo of one of the terrorists holding Berg's severed head (although thankfully with face not visible), saying that their decision followed "interest generated in the blogosphere," and that "not one of the 87 letters" they'd received about it "called for these images not to be printed."
And now with the advent of ISIS, beheadings are once again in the public sphere, "a piece of theatre designed to create power and cause fear" with "maximum visibility, maximum resonance" as well as its power to encourage "maximum fear." The author notes that
"by searching Google for the latest execution video, the people watching also have their part to play."
As someone who didn't follow that herd, while it's hard for me to believe that in this day and age there are people who freely choose to watch someone's murder online, it is a known fact that audiences have been drawn to executions for centuries, "ready to enjoy the spectacle."
But even outside the sphere of public beheadings and executions, the author uses her book to draw the reader's attention to the very human fascination with human heads. Over the course of several chapters, she chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.
Ms. Larson writes very well and immerses the reader right away. Sometimes it's obvious that she's adopting a sort of tongue-in-cheek, funny attitude toward her subject, but most of the time she's quite serious. The book is easily accessible, very reader friendly and each chapter includes not just facts, but strong analysis as well. I think a chapter on "decapitations in literature" to go with her chapter about art would have been a strong addition. My only complaint is that the first time she made a statement and I went to look for endnotes, there weren't any. I'm one of those readers who enjoy noting down sources as they appear -- and even though she has a sizable bibliography at the end of the book, it was incredibly frustrating not to know an exact source of information as it was given in the text. I was also a little disappointed at her disclaimer at the beginning of her section on sources where she writes that she intended the book as a "popular account" so did not cite names in the text. She also notes that "detailed notes" are available at her website, but jeez -- stopping my reading to go look online (even with Ipad next to me) is a lot to ask a person to do. Other than that not-so-minor quibble, it's definitely a book worth reading on what is to me a fascinating and sadly relevant topic. - NancyO
Who knew beheading would make such a comeback in the modern world?
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.”
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.”
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
Since August, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, has executed a number of Western hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The group, known for its brutality, has carried out the killings in the most attention-grabbing way possible: by beheading the prisoners and posting video of the act to social media.
If beheadings in 2014 seem shocking in their cruelty and theater, that is exactly the point, suggests anthropologist Frances Larson. Larson has researched the meaning of beheadings for a new book, “Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found.” The book addresses the political and cultural meaning of human heads—which she says are, upsettingly, “simultaneously a person and a thing”—and how, throughout history, they have been displayed as tokens of power and even collected. Though “Severed” was finished before the ISIS beheadings began, it is, unfortunately, newly relevant now. “Decapitation is the ultimate tyranny,” she writes.
Larson, an anthropologist who is a research fellow at the University of Durham, first became interested in the subject when she realized there was a connection between a famous collection of Amazonian shrunken heads at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and another collection, one in Oxford’s anatomy department, which gathered thousands of skulls in the 19th and 20th centuries: In a sense, the South American headhunters and the British scientists had been doing the same thing. She was left with a question that would ultimately shape her book: “What can we learn about our common humanity from this, the ultimate image of inhumanity?”Larson spoke to Ideas by phone and e-mail from her home in Oxford, England. This interview has been condensed and edited.
IDEAS: You write about political decapitation frequently in your book. Is there a particular kind of political power in decapitation, as opposed to other kinds of murder?
LARSON: Decapitation is an inherently visual form of murder, because it produces a trophy that stands as proof of conquest. It creates something that is made to be displayed, and it presupposes an audience to watch. It also requires huge force to decapitate someone. It is a brutal show of power.
IDEAS: What do you think ISIS is communicating with these beheadings?
LARSON: I think they are trying to draw us into their narrative....I think they know...we cannot resist it despite all our misgivings and discomfort and horror at these atrocities. It still makes front page news, and they, of course, are playing on that....We no longer see these graphic mutilations, which used to be a part of life. Crowds did flock to see [beheadings], but now the thought of one man killing another man, holding a knife to his throat, is frighteningly intimate and shocking. Death isn’t like that to us in our society. I think it’s a very visual demonstration, like a play, it’s a staging of power.
IDEAS: What do you think about how this tactic has been treated on social media?
LARSON: In the book I talk about the Iraq War beheadings 10 years ago; these recent beheadings hadn’t happened yet. And I think it is quite interesting, because there is a change. Ten years ago, we weren’t as connected as we are now in terms of social media interfaces like Twitter, in which you are actually in a dialogue with someone minute by minute, instead of blogging or e-mailing, which was the situation 10 years ago. I think that has made a difference, because now the members of the crowd can talk to each other. And when James Foley was killed, there was a quite successful boycott of the imagery...when they started the #ISISmediablackout hashtag, and people actually started tweeting things like “pour water on their flame” and “take the heat out”—you know, don’t show these images....In the past, companies like Twitter and Facebook have tried not to intervene....This was different, because they actually started responding, and I think that is a real sign of human decency coming back at the murderers and the perpetrators. It’s a step towards trying not to be part of the show.
IDEAS: How does that fit into larger recent social shifts in how we treat the human head?
LARSON: Less than 100 years ago in Europe and America, horrible mutilations like hangings, and, in France, the work of the guillotine, could still be seen in public, and these events were watched by thousands. Today, even though state-sponsored deaths in the United States may be painful and torturous, they retain the integrity of the body....
[But] I think that some of the stories I researched for the book could happen again. If there was another world war, who knows what desperate hatreds would emerge again, and what activities—like taking the skulls of the enemy as trophies, which happened during the Second World War—could be overlooked by people supporting their troops fighting for their lives in terrible conditions. We like to think that we can take the moral high ground, but writing this book has taught me to be wary of assuming we are above certain activities, or incapable of undertaking them.
IDEAS: The book is a chronicle of the obsession humans have with heads as an object. Why do you think heads hold such power?
LARSON: So many things happen in our heads: seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, speaking, breathing, laughing, crying. Our face is the most expressive part of our body. And of course our head holds our brain, which is recognized as the seat of consciousness and the center of the nervous system. Our heads connect our inner selves to the outer world more intensely than any other part of us....[It’s] the only body part that can publicly confirm a person’s death.
IDEAS: You talk about how Westerners tend to believe we are our heads: They seem tied to their owner’s essential personhood. Is that inevitable, since our heads contain our faces?
LARSON: I don’t think it’s inevitable. We “feel” things much more in our guts, after all. The human gut is packed full of neurons which control some of our emotional responses....As soon as you start to think about it, the notion that we are “in” our heads breaks down. - Bess Lovejoy