This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

The recent debate over the relocation and restitution of over 50 human crania of enslaved people in Samuel George Morton’s collection at the Penn Museum prompts a reflection on anthropology’s entanglements with the history of slavery. When the HAR editorial team asked me to offer some thoughts a propos this event, I revisited my research notes in search of archival traces of these complex crossings. This short note is an analytical reflection about one such trace—a letter exchange found in the private papers of another notorious race scholar and skull collector and Morton’s contemporary) British surgeon Joseph Barnard Davis (1801-1881). I ask how enslavement becomes epistemically and politically embedded in collections of human remains. I ask how historiographical work may help us to counter, subvert, heal, and remember the presence and effects of these past processes today.

Part 1. ‘Inscription’

Fervently devoted to racial craniology, Joseph Barnard Davis spent his life and wealth assembling a comparative anthropological collection of human crania. By 1880 he was the owner of the world’s largest private collection of skulls, an achievement inspired partly by Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) in Philadelphia.[1] Davis’s skull collecting and investigations were, like Morton’s, founded upon conceptions grounded in scientific racism. It reflected his belief, for example, that specific physical features of the cranium represented differences and hierarchies in mental attributes and moral and social states; and that (inferior) African “black” and (superior) “white” European human races were separate “natural” occurrences with separate origins.[2] Davis’s collection was based on a vast network of skull suppliers and collaborators based in a number of different colonies and territories outside Europe. His manuscript catalogues and letters, held in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, along with what survives of his cranial collection, show how the collection was generated and how certain human skulls entered the museum embedded in histories of enslavement.

In 1862, Barnard Davis penned a letter from England to one of his many medical and colonial correspondents and suppliers, Dr. W. F. Holmie, who was stationed in Victoria, Vancouver Island, off Canada’s Pacific Coast. In that letter, the contents of which we know only from Holmie’s response, Davis chased fresh data for his raciological hypotheses. He asked his colleague to procure more human crania and, specifically, to provide further particulars about “a certain skull” already in his possession; “whether I knew,” Holmie repeated, “the individual to whom the skull appertained during his earthly sojourn.”[3] Two decades earlier, in 1841, Holmie had presented the Edinburgh Phrenological Museum with the skull in question. A handwritten phrase on the skull, possibly composed by Holmie himself on occasion of its donation to the phrenology museum, triggered the doctor’s memory. “Your mention of the inscription on the skull as that of a ‘Slave boy of N.W. America 12 years of age, Tribe unknown,’” Holmie observed in his reply to Davis, “at once brought to recollection the boy, his character, and the circumstances of his death.”[4]

The “inscription on the skull,” a human skull marked with a particular text (not the ‘skull-in-itself,’ as it were) was the object at stake in this transaction. These minor textual artifacts physically inscribed on the bones were expected to endure a nearly perpetual existence in connection with the bones themselves. They were an important aspect of these economies of racial knowledge, a trace also of the relations of power in the disciplines of the dead. Although often overlooked in historical scholarship (in favour of either published texts or the strict materiality of the remains), these small graphic constituents were critical segments of the webs of “associated data” that supplemented (and continue to supplement) skulls as scientific specimens in museums.[5] Inscribing individual skulls with durable textual ink-tattoos—denoting lifestyle; health; social standing; age; sex; provenance; “tribe”; race type, for example—was a customary practice of anatomists and skull scientists of this period. They constituted a true rite de passage of the sciences of the skull, a textual marking procedure by which a person’s bones and life-story were seized by the collector and turned into an object specimen in the museum.[6] In fact, skull inscriptions were not innocuous written signs. They performed epistemic and political effects.

The procedure was meant to institute human remains as authenticated specimens to serve as “evidence” in the phrenologists’ and anthropologists’ conjectures about the “natural” character of mental, moral, social, and racial differences and hierarchies. Epistemically, therefore, skull inscriptions were intimately linked to theories of race. Simultaneously, these marks were inherently political actions of possession, akin perhaps to the branding of slaves, or to the marking of convicts and deviant bodies undergoing detention and institutionalization.[7] Hence in many cases (though, of course, not always), these inscriptions—just like collecting itself—were an extension of the modern biopolitical regimes that disciplined, inspected, subdued, and classified the living as objects of surveillance, knowledge, and governance. Medical historian Roy Porter aptly used the term “vile bodies” to suggest the great dependence of modern medicine and anatomy (most notably for dissection) on the bodies of those men and women who stood on the margins of society, or outside so-called normative behaviour, or as enemies to the nation, or as “savages” beyond the boundaries of humanity. [8] These were the bodies most often diverted from proper rites and burial norms. The scientific collection of human skulls as specimens in the 1800s followed a similar course. It often reiterated and extended into museum spaces the experiences of subalternity and subjugation experienced by a person in life. Craniology and skull collecting thus became a continuation of social and colonial biographies of exclusion, poverty, deviance, labour exploitation, criminal punishment, war violence, and, also, enslavement.[9] A perusal of Joseph Barnard Davis’s 1867 Catalogue of Human Skulls reveals numerous traces of this entanglement between anthropological skull collections and classifications of “vile bodies.” In Davis’s catalogue, recording and marking skulls as “slaves” paralleled practices of recording and marking skulls  as “dangerous idiots”; “criminals and persons of bad character”; enemies “killed in battle”; “rebels”;  or “convicts”.[10]

The phrase “Slave boy of N. W. America. 12 years of age, Tribe unknown” is a poignant example of these developments. I see this skull inscription also as a continuation of enslavement; (re-)branding the skull as a “slave” specimen reinstated by means of craniological museum methods the abusive relations of enslavement to which the child had been subjected during his lifetime. A “recollection”—a brief narration of who the “slave boy” was and how he died—further supplemented this process.

I have looked at how enslavement could become epistemically and politically continued in the skull inscriptions made by racial craniologists. In the next part of this essay, to be published in this same HAR series, I examine Holmie’s “recollection” of the “slave boy.” I then ask how one might turn this process on its head, engaging the archival traces of enslaved remains to counter scientific racism and its legacies.


[1] By the time of his death in 1881, Davis’s cranial collection numbered around 1,800 human skulls from different parts of the world, and it was apparently twice as large as Morton’s in Philadelphia. (Morton was credited to have assembled around 968 human skulls.) Davis’s private collection, like Morton’s, was then incorporated into a public museum. Davis bestowed it on the Royal College of Surgeons in England, where it still remains. German bombing of this College during World War II destroyed a significant part of these collections. My research in Barnard Davis’s papers took place in 2003-2004. I did not gather further information in the RCS about the current status of the human skull under discussion in this paper.

[2] On Davis’s racialism, polygenism and anti-darwinism see Paul Turnbull, Science, Museums and Collecting the Indigenous Dead in Colonial Australia (New York: Palgrave, 2017), 130-141.

[3] W. F. Holmie to Joseph Barnard Davis. Victoria, Vancouver Island, March 14, 1863. Enclosed in Joseph Barnard Davis, Catalogue of Human Crania, Vol. IV. Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London.

[4] Ibid.

[5] I have been elaborating on this argument from various angles, in several works, since I first introduced it in Ricardo Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism: Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870-1930 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[6] The length, content, and quality of these writings and phrases on skulls could sometimes differ widely according to the circumstances and the theoretical interests of the writers. I develop this theme in Ricardo Roque, “The Logic of Skull Writing: Bone Inscriptions and the Science of Race,”Nuncius (forthcoming).

[7] See Clare Anderson, Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia (Oxford & New York: Berg, 2004).

[8] Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: the Modern Foundations of Body and Soul (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), xiv.

[9] This is not saying of course that these skull collections were exclusively made of this type of remains. The curiosity of skull collectors for the diverse and the “curious” could be wider; it could, for example, encompass the study of “genius” personalities, let alone the so-called fossile or pre-historic skulls. See Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Chicago: 2000 [1987]), xv; Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism.

[10] See J. B. Davis, Thesaurus Craniorum: Catalogue of the Skulls of the Various Races of Man, in the Collection of Joseph Barnard Davis (London, 1867).

Ricardo Roque: contributions / / Universidade de Lisboa, Instituto de Ciências Sociais