Josiah Wilkinson liked to take Oliver Cromwell’s head to breakfast parties. He would pass it around on a metal spike to his shocked but fascinated guests, and the head continued to provide entertainment until 1960, when the heirloom was given a long-overdue burial.
Think of the severed head and you naturally think of ‘head hunting’ and of dangerous far-flung corners of South America. Yet the Western world is not exempt: during the Reign of Terror, executioners in different French towns competed to see who could guillotine the most people the fastest, and it was actually Western collectors who drove the head-hunting epidemics of the 19th century. London Bridge had its own Keeper of the Heads, and people still flock to Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum to see their famous shrunken heads.
In the 21st century, we are more distanced from the physicality of death than ever before, but the drama of the severed head is still exploited by soldiers, heads of state, the Church, artists, scientists and writers. This book will be its compelling, if gruesome, history.
Dr Frances Larson is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Anthropology department at Durham University. She was previously with the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, where she first came into contact with their famous shrunken heads. Last year she published a biography of Henry Wellcome, AN INFINITY OF THINGS, which drew wide acclaim. Her research focuses on how objects have shaped academic disciplines, institutions like museums, and individual people’s lives.