Skulls, faces and being human 
John Harries (University of Edinburgh)
Joost Fontein (University of Johannesburg)
Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall B
Start time:
21 June, 2014 at 14:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

In this panel we explore skulls and the relationship between skulls, faces and ideas of humanness. The focus is on the materiality of bone and the techniques by which people are constituted in sensual and intellectual engagements with skulls across different historical and ethnographic contexts.

Long Abstract

Amongst the anatomical collections of the University of Edinburgh is the skull of the 16th-century Scottish scholar and poet George Buchanan. It has been with the University from its founding and on display since the early 19th century. At that time it was supposed that the skull bore a likeness to the face of the living Buchanan and that the genius of the man could be found in the very substance of bone: the thinness of his skull being distinguished from the thickness of the skull of an "idiot". This illustrates something of how during the Scottish Enlightenment notions of humanness were often elaborated through emerging technologies of comparative anatomy and forensic investigation. The skull, lying beneath the face and encasing the brain, had a peculiar status within this nascent scholarship: nothing was deemed to hold more of who we are or to reveal more of the qualities of a living person.

This panel invites papers exploring the significance of skulls and faces in diverse contexts, whether these be skulls collected and studied by 19th, 20th and 21st century anatomists and anthropologists or those handled differently by different peoples at different times and for very different reasons. As we particularly want to examine relationships between the materialities of bone and flesh and notions of humanness, we encourage submissions which consider this relationship "symmetrically" and focus on how these ideas are elaborated in affective, sensory and technological engagements with the bones that once lay beneath the face.

Accepted papers:


Aivita Putnina (University of Latvia)

Paper short abstract:

The paper looks at the significance of a human skull both in in the process of subjective making of a physician and his or her attitude towards human body and health care ethics.

Paper long abstract:

The paper explores the use of human bones in the context of healing practices in Latvia. It focusses at the first encounter of medical students with the human

body. The study was conducted as a case study in a larger project on

biotechnologies in Latvia pointing, on the one hand, at the

significance of human body in symbolic and cognitive transformation of

medical students into medical professionals and, on the other, the role of

tactile and visual practices which allow transforming human bodies into instruments,knowledge and attributes of the profession contributing to undwrstanding of medical ethics. The study is based on 29

interviews with medical professionals of different generations

concentrating on their stories on human skulls used for

their anatomy lessons. I argue that the ambivalence generated in the

practice of learning human body sets the context for further ethical



Sabine Kienitz (Universität Hamburg)

Paper short abstract:

In WWI a high percentage of combatants lost their lives by skullshots. But also numerous soldiers in all participating nations survived with severely wounded heads, brains and faces. The paper discusses the consequences for those men in everyday life as well as for sciences concerned with brains and faces.

Paper long abstract:

One of the most damaging outcomes of WWI were the injuries of the brain shot soldiers caused by the enormous and shattering power of the modern weapons used in trench and mobile warfare. The head was the most vulnerable and at the same time most visible part of the body the combatants on all sides were aiming at. In Germany and Austria e.g. about 500.000 men survived those attacks with severely wounded heads, brains and faces. The paper discusses the consequences for those men in everyday life, losing their faces as well as their emotional and mental order as part of their masculine identities. Thus questioning the skull and brain injury as part of the history of the war victims' social situation has to do with the history of gender-power-relations and is related to the discussion on remasculinization in those societies after the war. On top one has to look at those sciences concerned with brains and faces as neurology, psychology and plastic surgery. Thus there is the question of professionalization of the brain specialists at that time and the construction of meaning and impact by taking care for those men concerned: How did reconstructing surgeons, neurologists, psychologists, and special education paedagogues organize the experimental arrangements for those men, they now actually called "brain cripples"?


Anne-Marie Martindale (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

The presentation will explore the relationship between socio-culturally situated body-faces, facial boundary disruption, and embodied identification. I argue that identities are not located in faces, but within persons, experiences, contexts and always in relations to others.

Paper long abstract:

The recent emergence of facial transplantation (2005+) as an extreme form of reconstructive surgery has led to papers which explore the possible impacts of living with someone else's face. One theme considers the role of the face in identity formation. Influenced by bio-medicine's Cartesian dualist roots, there is an assumption underpinning some papers that 'identity' must change, as it is 'located' in the face (Perpich, 2010).

The presentation will explore the relationship between socio-culturally situated body-faces, facial boundary disruption, and embodied identification. I took an explicitly embodied to the research, in this case 13 ethnographic narrative interviews conducted across England with people with an acquired facial 'disfigurement', in their homes, using photographs to aid discussion. During the presentation, I will argue that embodied identities are not attached to or located within faces, but within persons, experiences, contexts and always in relations to others (Grosz, 1994; Csordas, 1997). I will discuss the relationship between unhabitual facial change and identity transition, characterising it as the negotiation of wider socio-cultural values about faces, ritual transitional states during and after the event (Douglas, 2002) and one of revised embodiment.


Csordas, T. J. (1997). The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Douglas, M. (2002). Purity and danger [electronic book]:an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo / Mary Douglas, London : Routledge, 2002.

Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile Bodies Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.

Perpich, D. (2010). "Vulnerability and the ethics of facial tissue transplantation." Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 7(2): 173-185.)


Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

‘Wonder’ and ‘curiosity’ have been making a comeback in museums through installations teeming with hollow or glass eyes. Drawing on my ethnography of artistic reworkings of more-than-human remains, I argue that the ‘new curiosity’ implies an enlightened fascination with skeletal morphology.

Paper long abstract:

In 2008, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum displayed Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a human skull (For the Love of God) in a cubicle at the end of a pitch-dark corridor. The encounter with the skull left me strangely invigorated. In the room next door, seventeenth-century Dutch still lives featured a combination of wondrous treasures from foreign exploits and reminders of death (such as human skulls) cautioning the viewer: memento mori. As in numerous recent exhibitions, visitors were made to marvel at the curious and crafty, achieved through juxtaposition of unusual (art) objects from different materials and provenances, prominently including reworked human and animal remains. 'Wonder' has been making a spectacular comeback in museum contexts through still-life displays teeming with hollow or glass eyes, organised in playful cabinets of wonder harking back to the age of curiosity. The in-between of Enlightenment, however, has been associated with a rejection of 'the marvellous' (Daston and Park 1998). Does the 'return to curiosity' (Bann 2003), understood as an artistic encroachment of art upon the realm of science, imply a rejection of enlightenment, or is something else afoot? Drawing on my ethnography of artistic reworkings of more-than-human remains in Britain and the Netherlands, I argue that the new curiosity implies an enlightened fascination with morphology as it is shared by human and animal skeletons.

Bann, Stephen. 2003. The Return to Curiosity. In Art and Its Publics, ed. Andrew McClellan, Blackwell.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. 1998. Wonder and the Order of Nature, 1150 - 1750. Zone Books.