A Skull Collection Revisited

From Colonial Resistance to Repatriation

Skull room

Hundreds of skulls from Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom and countries around the world were collected for study by both the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and the University in the 19th century. The Anatomical Museum still holds over 1800 of these skulls.

Except for phrenology supporters who volunteered their remains, these skulls were taken, without consent, from prisons, asylums, hospitals, archaeological sites and battlefields. Doctors, military personnel, archaeologists, explorers and University graduates working abroad were actively involved in the theft and exportation of human remains. Like many similar collections in UK universities, most skulls came from the British Empire’s colonies or through their global networks.

Phrenology and Colonial Warfare

The relationship between colonial violence and scientific racism was mutually beneficial. Not only were phrenology and related pseudosciences used to define racial categories and hierarchies in the 19th century, but they also depended on colonial violence for the skulls needed to conduct their investigations.

For the first time dedicated research in 2021 highlights stories of people whose remains were stolen from Africa. Drawing on museum documentation - which often works to erase the identities of the individuals whose remains it should record - key findings from this study link the University, its network, and collection directly with British colonization of Africa and the continued oppression and enslavement of African people.

Use the arrows to discover a selection of these stories.

Reconstructing the Caribbean's last pirate

Skulls in the collection of the Anatomical Museum that originally interested phrenologists are today studied in other ways. Since 2015 they have been used for facial reconstruction projects by students from the Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification (CAHID) at the University of Dundee.

The notoriety of Spanish pirate José Rivas (known as Pepe El Mallorquin) is what intrigued phrenologists to collect his remains. Described as the ‘last pirate of the Caribbean’, Pepe plundered Spanish and British ships as they passed by Cuba on their way to and from their American colonies. In 1822, Pepe died during a crackdown on piracy. His death and the increased British naval presence signalled an end to pirate activity in the area.

Through Britain’s colonial network, Pepe’s skull was brought to Scotland. Captain Graham of the Royal Navy transported it to Edinburgh and gave it to his brother Professor Graham, a Professor of Botany and Medicine at Edinburgh University. It was then presented to the Anatomical Museum where it was used for Phrenological study.

Leading a crew of 40 men and driving away other privateers and pirates from nearby British colonies in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, Pepe would have been a fearsome adversary for Spanish and British colonial ships before his death. Emily McCulloch, a Forensic Art and Facial Identification MSc student in 2015, used her degree project to bring the face of this formidable pirate back to life.

The diversity of skulls in the collection are a valuable resource for students like Emily, giving them an opportunity to develop skills they can later use to help identify remains from archaeological digs or work within forensic units in the police force. Using a combination of 3D photography, existing tissue data for a young European and her own artistic licence, Emily shares the process involved in reconstructing Pepe and her experience working with the collection.

A ceremonial return

Since 1947 the University has been returning skulls. In 2019 the University returned nine skulls taken from Sri Lanka during the British colonial period in the 1880s, including three skulls originally collected for the study of phrenology by the Reverend George Lyon, presented to the University in 1827. The repatriation took place following a collaborative research project led by Wanniyalaeto Vedda elders. A minority indigenous group, the Vedda are thought to be the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Today they are under threat of eviction, and wild game hunting, a traditional subsistence and cultural activity, is illegal.

The genetic material held in historic skulls can reveal new information about diet, population movement and disease in historic populations. Vedda elders, working with scientists at the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, supervised stable carbon and oxygen isotope analysis of tooth enamel powder taken from the skulls at the museum. The results show Vedda ancestors relied primarily on tropical forest resources in the late 19th century. This proves their diet relied on traditional forest areas, supporting current Vedda arguments for legalised access to traditional lands and hunting.

Since the repatriation, the Vedda community and the University continue to work together. The Vedda are now developing a museum of their own to be the final resting place for their ancestors. It will tell the story of the research and return of the skulls from Edinburgh.

This exhibition spotlights the work of academics, curators, students and artists to uncover and confront this colonial collection over the past decade, but this work is incomplete. New projects continue to dig deeper to understand the impact of phrenology in Edinburgh and abroad, and its lingering influence in other racial sciences.

In the next section, you can explore an artist's response to this exhibition and collection by Tayo Adekunle.

You can also discover more information about ongoing research with the collection at the University on the Anatomical Museum’s blog.