Author(s): Frances Larson
The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and it connects our inner selves to the outer world more evocatively than any other part of the body. Yet there is a dark side to the head's pre-eminence. Over the centuries, human heads have decorated our churches, festooned our city walls and filled our museums. Long regarded as objects of fascination and repulsion, they have been props for artists and specimens for laboratory scientists, trophies for soldiers and items of barter. Today, as videos of decapitations circulate online and scientists promise the wealthy among us that our heads may one day live on without our bodies, the severed head is as contentious and compelling as ever. From the western colonialists whose demand for shrunken heads spurred brutal massacres to the troops in the Second World War who sent the remains of Japanese soldiers home to their girlfriends; from the memento mori in Romantic portraits to Damien Hirst's With Dead Head; from grave-robbing phrenologists to enterprising cryonicists, Larson explores the bizarre, often gruesome and confounding history of the severed head. Its story is our story.
A serious and seriously entertaining exploration of the dark and varied obsessions that the 'civilized West' has had with decapitated heads and skulls, from a rising star of non-fiction writing
Dr FRANCES LARSON is an honorary research fellow in anthropology at Durham University. She is the author of a biography of Henry Wellcome, An Infinity of Things (OUP, 2009), which was part-funded by a Wingate Scholarship. The book was published to considerable critical acclaim and was subsequently shortlisted for the MJA Awards and chosen as a Sunday Times Book of The Year, as well as a New Scientist Best Book of 2009. She is also the co-author of Knowing Things (OUP, 2007), a book on the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where she worked as a researcher after receiving her D.Phil.