Inside a layer of bone which is only a few millimetres thick in places lived a thinking brain, the mind of a person like us.
Imagine the millions of thoughts and experiences this object encapsulated.
No wonder we revere skulls. But we’re scared of them too. Not only do they remind us of our impending death there is also the fear that their former owners might come back to haunt us. For many reasons most of us aren’t too comfortable around human skulls and we certainly don’t want one in our home.
Today our skulls usually get buried along the rest of us or destroyed completely during the cremation process, and many people don’t have the opportunity to interact with them.
But in the not so distant past skulls often had another life.
Christians (and other religions) used to keep the skull (or other bones) of religious leaders and venerate them in special containers called ‘reliquary boxes’. By far the largest collection of crania belongs to the Catholic Church and many important religious buildings still contain and occasionally display such relics as palpable touchstones of their faith.
the skull of Peter of Verona
Other cultures have kept skulls as trophies, preserving the heads or skulls of their enemies and displaying them in their houses – or even wearing them as decoration. These trophies were often kept as an insult to the dead person’s mana and a visible warning to their relatives not to come looking for vengeance. Other cultures believed that cutting the head from an enemy and keeping their skull would give them control over the spiritual power of the deceased which they could turn to their own ends in this life.
The indigenous people of Papua New Guinea used to keep skulls of family and friends out of love and a desire to remember their kin. These skulls were considered to hold the spirit (imunu) of those deceased. If they were well looked after the spirits would continue to help the community as their owners had done when alive. The skulls were often frequently handled and sometimes covered in clay to resemble the deceased person. These ritual objects provided a tangible link between this world and the next and were often consulted for advice or help in times of need.
It wasn’t only the natives of New Guinea who liked to decorate skulls; Neolithic crania from approximately 12,000BC have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean decorated with Dentalium shells. On the other side of the Pacific the Aztecs covered complete skulls in turquoise and other materials. One of the most famous of these is thought to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror’; one of the four powerful creator deities who were amongst the most important of their gods. They also used to cut the facial bones from their victim’s skulls and make ritual masks from them.
Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror’ – Skull covered in turquoise – British Museum
Aztec skull mask with flint blade nose/tongue
The Aztecs believed that when a person died their life-force departed from the mortal remains forever. So they had no compunction about using bones in their ritual art. One of the gods, Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, used bones like seeds to grow new life. The bones were crushed into a powder and inserted into the soil where new humans grew like plants.
There are not many examples of people using human bones for artistic purposes in European history.
One well-known exception is the famous ossuary chapel at Sedlec in the Czech Republic. In the 17th Century woodcarver František Rint used human bones and skulls at Sedlec to make all sorts of decorative sculptures. Mostly they paid homage to the Schwarzenburg family who owned the ossuary – or to himself!
Family Emblem of the Schwarzenberg – Sedlec Ossuary – Czech Republic
Another more recent example is the art of Swiss artist Francois Robert who made a number of temporary installations using a human skeleton which he laid out in different patterns and designs, many of which depicted words or weapons.
Francois Robert- Skeleton Pistol
Recently I acquired a human skull. Like the other skull in my possession this one was also once ‘owned’ by an old medical man. Up until quite recently everyone training as a doctor had to acquire a real human skeleton so that they could become competent anatomists. Nowadays most medical students use life-like replicas but these are not useful for illustrating the impact of various diseases or congenital malformations. The skeletons came mostly from sources in India until they outlawed their export in 1985. But many people in India still cannot afford a proper funeral and bodies are often dumped in some convenient place. These bones and others looted from gravesites continue to supply an illegal export trade in human material.
According to estimates, 20 000 – 25 000 human skeletons are smuggled out of India every year through Nepal, China and Bangladesh. The skeletons reach markets in the US, Japan, Europe and the Middle East, mostly for medical institutions. The price for a complete skeleton in these markets ranges from $700 to $1500 depending on the quality and size. In India a full skeleton costs around $350 in the open market. Young Brothers, a Kolkata based bone dealer, sells a human skeleton for $300. While the complete skeletons mostly find their way to medical laboratories in the West, the assorted bones and skulls are used for religious rituals mostly in Hindu and Buddhist dominated areas. For example, as part of their tantric rituals in places such as Nepal and Assam, many tantric adherents drink wine from human skulls.
A police officer in Burdwan, West Bengal, displays a cache of skulls confiscated from a bone factory on the outskirts of Kolka.
I find it slightly odd that not many people are prepared to use real human skulls in art today, although their representations appear absolutely everywhere.
My new skull had been sitting in the bottom of a cupboard for years and was in very poor condition. I decided to use it in a piece of art. I didn’t take this step lightly and I knew I would be throwing myself open to criticism by people who believe I am being dis-respectful.
Much of my work is connected with the idea that humans are an integral part of the natural world and have no claim for any separate status. It is our current ‘disconnectedness’ from nature that is at the heart of so many of our current problems as a species.
In my opinion all life is equally sacred. I can’t see any spiritual distinction between the bone of a human and the bone of a sheep. I admit that if a bone had a personal connection through birth or friendship (e.g. it was my father’s skull) I might feel differently. But that is a separate issue. I don’t care what happens to my own skull. In fact I’d be happy to see it involved in some new act of creation – or perhaps just sitting on my son’s mantle piece.
The skull I obtained is a mystery. I have been told by the person who gave it to me it probably belonged to a mature woman who probably died at least sixty years ago.
This beautiful structure was part of a living organism and I make my work to honour her previous life force and not to commemorate or celebrate her death. I am also trying to do justice to the life forces of all the other biological material I have used in the work.
Smooth white cup sponge (Corallistes fulvodesmus) Ngawi 2014
To make ‘Sacred’ I installed the skull in a reliquary box or a cista mystica (a sacred casket) made from recycled timber (with the help of Global Wood Rework). I designed the piece so that the skull’s face resembles the corolla of a large flower. The ‘petals’ are made from dried cup sponges(see above) This is a particularly lovely species of sponge which dries out like thick cardboard. I obtained these rare specimens from a beach at Ngawi in the Wairarapa. The other bones and teeth come from cows, sheep,wild pig and ostriches sourced from farms in the lower South Island.
If I hadn’t made this piece both the human skull and the other material would probably been lost to our view entirely. I hope that by preserving these artefacts and bringing them a new life inside a home or a gallery or the internet I am extending them both honour and respect. That is certainly my intent.
‘Sacred’ (30 x 30cm) Human facial bones with cup sponges and bones from cow,sheep, and ostrich in a custom box made from recycled wood. Bruce Mahalski – 2015