Understanding RAMM’s Melanesian Skulls
27th October 2015
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These collections form part of RAMM’s World cultures collection, recognised by Arts Council England's Designation Scheme as a pre-eminent collection of national and international importance.

Researcher Kirstin Leith explains “During the 1930s RAMM acquired three over-modelled Melanesian human skulls. The acquisition was part of a wider collection frenzy in Melanesia during the early part of the twentieth century - a period of time in which entrepreneurs, missionaries and collectors as well as ethnographers and anthropologists were first accessing, trading with and studying the numerous and varied cultures and communities populating the islands of Melanesia.

The addition of Melanesian skulls to the Ethnographic collection was intriguing to say the very least. They were certainly seen as exotic curiosities by Westerners, especially as skulls such like these were often initially acquired through head hunting raids or used as part of protracted funerary practices. Yet the accession notes were cursory, limited to year of acquisition, regional provenance and, in just two of the three cases, the name of the donor, and no research has been carried out since their collection some 80 years ago.”

RAMM’s Discovering Worlds project is an ambitious programme of new research, conservation, documentation and reinterpretation of RAMM’s Pacific collections. by Under the Designation Development Fund supported scheme, Melanesian human remains were earmarked for investigation to establish a bioarchaeological profile of each skull, find out who the donors were and how these individuals acquired the skulls, and to understand how each specimen may have been used in a Melanesian cultural context, particularly whether or not they could be confidently categorised as trophy or ancestor skulls.

To tell the story of each skull there are several lines of inquiry. The first is the bioarchaeological analysis of the skulls. The second focuses on piecing together the curatorial history of each skull: tracking the journey of each skull from Melanesia to Exeter, identifying the collectors and tracking the relationships and movements that made museum collection possible. The third focuses on interpreting each skull (its changing functions and symbolic purposes) by considering the Melanesian anthropological and ethnographic evidence as well as results of the bioarchaeological analysis and biographic investigation. Kirstin Leith explains “By combining these three lines of investigation we can attain a deeper understanding of when and how each specimen was used prior to collection and why these human remains may have been singled out for special treatment in their original Melanesian cultural context.”

Under the direction of Tony Eccles, Curator of Ethnography, the research team is comprised of Curator’s Assistant and archaeologist Dr. Kristin Leith (RAMM and Honorary University Fellow, University of Exeter), bioarchaeologists Dr. Catriona McKenzie (Lecturer in Human Osteology, University of Exeter) and Dr. Tyler Cargill (Smithsonian Institute). Additionally, Professor Alan Outram (Head of Archaeology, University of Exeter) will analyse modifications made to the skulls, Dr Linda Hurcombe (Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Exeter) will analyze the materials used for decoration and radiologist and Honorary Professor (University of Exeter) Iain Watt will perform the x-rays and CT scanning of the skulls.

Research from the Discovering Worlds project will be incorporated in the collection documentation and will assist with the redisplay of the Pacific collections in the World Cultures gallery. Recent research on the Ethnography collection is now available on RAMM’s Research Collection. You can learn more about RAMMs ethnographic collection on the new World Cultures Website.

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