Talking Heads

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An account of the processes used on an ancient skull to find out the true origins.

Submitted: April 27, 2013

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Submitted: April 27, 2013




Forensic and Biological Anthropologist Dr Martin Smith, a Lecturer at Bournemouth University, Dorset, delivered an excellent and interesting talk at the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, Cornwall, about a research project he had undertaken regarding a skull which Dr Smith originally came across at the museum. The Museum of Witchcraft was set up in the 1950’s, it holds many different and unique artefacts including a carved human femur which was believed to be from those executed for practising witchcraft and a skull which was claimed to be used as a drinking instrument but could be argued that it had clearly been autopsied (Museum of Witchcraft 2009)

The museum curators had affectionately named the skull ‘Harry the Head’. Dr Smith enquired about the origins of ‘Harry’ and was told he was a man who had been beheaded publically and tarred during the medieval era. The curators added that it was possible that his head was one of the many placed on the London Bridge. They informed Dr Smith that no intensive research had been undertaken into discovering the story of ‘Harry’ and that the only background information they held, came from the museum founder, Cecil Williamson (Smith 2011, p.1).

Williamson ‘rescued’ the head from underneath the altar in a war-savaged Church. It was in a crudely decorated, carved box, which lead Williamson to believe it was the remains of a saint as it was common practice to keep the relics of saints in many European Churches at the time (Museum of Witchcraft 2009). The wooden box had looked as if it had been kept in a stone niche as an inspection found indents and scratches on the base, as if it had been dragged from where it was kept to be worshipped by believers that thought they were genuine remains of a saint (Smith 2011, p.6). However, ‘Relics’ that have since been found have not always been the body parts of saints, e.g. the remains supposedly belonging to ‘Joan of Arc’ (Butler 2007).

In 2010, the ‘remains’ of the French saint, Joan of Arc, were closely examined using an abundance of methods including DNA analysis, anthropological and zoological studies, microscopy using optical and scanning electron microscopes and binocular magnifying glass, elemental analysis and carbon dating. The results revealed the ‘remains’ were a human rib, a fragment of human vertebra, and an adult animal femur, but it could not be determined which subspecies of cat the femur belonged to. The bones were covered in a coating which was confirmed, using microscopy, to be pollen identified as pine, the same pine resin used for mummification. A 10cm piece of fabric and three fragments of ‘charcoal’ were found among the ‘relics’, the fabric was proven, by using binocular magnifying glass, to be quality flax and did not belong to the period of ‘Joan of Arc’. The ‘charcoal’ was identified as “clusters of balsam”. Another confirmation that the ‘relics’ were fake was after carbon dating was performed and yielded a date of between 695 B.C. – 234 B.C. which did not correlate with the time era they were first suspected of belonging to (Charlier et al. 2010).

The appearance of ‘Harry’ showed that he had layers of black material coating with protruding flakes of skin on the forehead and eyes. The skull still had eyes in the socket which Dr Smith found unusual. Intriguing as the story was to Dr Smith, he asked if he could borrow the skull for analysis and the museum was happy to oblige. Dr Smith intended to test the skull in various manners to determine the gender, age and origins of the skull.

The next step in divulging into the skull’s history was to perform a CT scan which revealed that ‘Harry’ did not have stone and clay where the eyes should be situated, and a broken nose, which has been confirmed to be a preferred method in the mummification process. This revelation was puzzling to Dr Smith, which later made him believe that the skull could be a modern fake. The CT scan also revealed a congealed liquid substance resembling tar inside the skull (Smith 2011, p.8).

Research into mummified remains, conducted by the University of Western Ontario, showed a tree resin coating. Infrared Spectroscopy results on the liquid in the skull came back positive for pine tree resin. This tallied up with the mummification process which was performed on Tutankhamun (Smith 2011, p.3).

The Ancient Egyptian mummification process states “resin such as pistacia tree resin and balsam sap” was decanted into the brain after the brain fluids were drained from the nostrils. The resin solidified which helped the skull from caving in. This was not the only time resin was used; it was used in coating the body, soaking the linen or straw which was placed inside the body and coating the linen used in wrapping the mummy (Alchin, 2012).

The second examination of ‘Harry’ began which was to work out the sex of the skull. Usually identifying the sex of a dead body would be by examining the pelvis but using the features of the skull was the only possible option. A scoring system was used for the relative expressions of traits to find out which were more predominant. Dr Smith used his knowledge and the power of deduction, by ruling out the probability that it could have been a small male, as the characteristics were predominately female (Smith 2011, p.2). ‘Harry’ was renamed ‘Harriet’.

To find out how old ‘Harriet’ was before she became a skull displayed at the museum, the teeth were examined. Molars and wisdom teeth were present along with some impact and broken teeth so it was concluded that ‘Harriet’ died roughly in her 30-40’s (Smith 2011, p.5). This was found to be a contradiction of the hypothesis of the skull possibly being a modern fake as evidence has proven that modern-day skulls, which have been previously found, do not contain teeth that have been grounded down (d’Incau et al. 2012).

Keen to find out which era ‘Harriet’ belonged too, Dr Smith had radio-carbon dating performed on the cloth found on the skull. Calibration curves from the results revealed a 95% chance that ‘Harriet’ was from 360 B.C. – 110 B.C. (Smith 2011, p.9) The time frame fits in with ‘Harriet’ being a late mummified mummy, who may have arrived in Britain by a Victorian enthusiast. ‘Harriet’ is thought to have been within the age range 35-50 years old when she came to her fatal end (Bournemouth University 2010). Findings have predicted she may have been an ancient Egyptian who wore wigs after purposefully shaving her head (Smith 2011, p.9).




© Copyright 2019 Zoe Ross. All rights reserved.

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