The Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884, is a museum of anthropology and world archaeology. Its collections include materials made by peoples from cultures around the world and from throughout history. While the focus of the Museum is on human cultures and how different peoples have solved the problems of everyday life, the collections include human remains acquired to show some aspect of culture: the remembrance of the dead (e.g. hair bracelets and brooches), modification of the body to conform to standards of beauty (e.g. skulls showing evidence of head-binding), the treatment of illness and injury (e.g. skulls showing trepanning), and religious practices (e.g. skull bowls from Tibet, used in tantric Buddhist rituals to make sacrificial offerings to protective deities). About a fifth of these collections come from Europe. Some human remains, such as crania and hair samples, were acquired early in the last century by Museum staff who researched issues of cross-cultural similarity and difference, while others, such as scalps and shrunken heads, came to the Museum from early collectors who acquired them as curios and examples of cultural practices.
Of the more than 275,000 objects in the Museum's collections, just over 2000 either are human remains (including human hair) or are cultural artefacts made, wholly or in part, of human remains (including hair). There are some 300 skulls or parts of skulls, and a further 600 items that are either human bones or artefacts incorporating human bones. There are some 400 specimens of human hair and a further 300 artefacts made with human hair. There are also a number of human teeth and artefacts made with human teeth. These collections come from all parts of the world: Asia (approximately 500 items), Europe (400), Oceania (400), Africa (300), North America (150), Australia (100), South America (75), Other and Unknown (50).
Information about the Museum's collections is available online. Anyone interested may search the databases for information about the nature of the Museum's holdings, or for information about specific items, at: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/databases/ .
As with all material in its collections, the Pitt Rivers Museum endeavours to provide the highest possible standard of care for human remains and artefacts made with human remains. PRM staff contributed to the development of the UK Museum Ethnographers Group's 'Professional Guidelines Concerning the Storage, Display, Interpretation and Return of Human Remains' (1994). Dr Laura Peers, one of the Museum's Curators, has also served as a member of the DCMS Working Group on Human Remains.
Museum staff have also considered the ethics of displaying human remains, and have begun to redisplay cases that include human remains to ensure that the intended educational and cultural information is communicated well and that the displays are respectful to both visitors and the dead. In 1987, following advice from a visiting member of a Maori community, the Maori moko mokai (tattooed heads) that had been on permanent display in the Museum were removed and replaced with a text explaining their meanings and the reason for their removal. The Museum's displays also include a case on 'Treatment of the Dead', which focuses on mummification in Ancient Egypt and Peru, and a case on 'Treatment of Dead Enemies', which includes shrunken heads ( tsantsas ), scalps, and trophies incorporating human remains. These materials are interpreted in a respectful manner. Their local significance in their regions of origin is explained and a cross-cultural perspective on the theme of the display is provided. (Further information about tsantsas can be found below.)
Museum staff are working with source communities around the world to understand the collections and their importance to university scholars, the public, and source community members. One recent project involved taking information about hair samples in the Museum's collections to the Native American community in which the samples were collected to ask for information about how the collection should be stored and used. Staff are actively assisting members of one First Nations community in Canada to study their tribal heritage in UK museum collections, and working with the Tibetan refugee community in Britain as well as with local immigrant communities. Another major project, 'The Relational Museum', seeks to understand the historic relationships that led to the movement of artefacts from communities around the world into the Museum, and through this study, to re-awaken relations with many communities so that we can learn from, and about, each other using the collections as a vital link between peoples. Information on this and other research projects at the Pitt Rivers Museum is available at: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/grants.html
Requests for repatriation of human remains in the Museum's collections will be considered in the light of the University's policy on human remains in the care of its museums as a whole (see www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/2006-7/supps/2_4787.pdf). In 1990, one such request resulted in the return of skeletal remains from the Pitt Rivers Museum to Australian Aboriginal communities.
The Museum is aware of the Human Tissue Authority legistlation coming into effect in September 2006. The Museum welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions about its collections and displays.
For the Museum's website, go to: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk
For the Museum's online searchable databases go to: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/databases/
For information on the 'Relational Museum' and other research projects go to
Legget, Jane A. 2000. Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for Good Practice (MGC Guidelines for Good Practice), London: Museums and Galleries Commission.
Peers, Laura 2003. 'Strands Which Refuse to be Braided: Hair Samples from Beatrice Blackwood's Ojibwe Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum', Journal of Material Culture, Vol. VIII, no. 1, pp. 75-96.
Museum Ethnographers Group 1994. 'Professional Guidelines Concerning the Storage, Display, Interpretation and Return of Human Remains in Ethnographical Collections in United Kingdom Museums', Journal of Museum Ethnography , no. 6, pp. 22-4. [Also available online at
Working Group on Human Remains 2003. Report of the Working Group on Human Remains , London: Department of Culture, Media and Sport. [A text-only version of the report is also available online at
Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, Department of Culture, Media and Sport, October 2005.
For the University's policy on human remains held in its museums' collections, see www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/2006-7/supps/2_4787.pdf
Photographs of the following items in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum are available in PDF format:
1890.34.1. On display: Court, case 122.
Asia, Tibet. Group: Buddhist. Donor unknown. Libation cup made of human skull-cap. The Tibetan skull bowl is used in tantric Buddhist rituals to make sacrificial offerings to protective deities. Skulls and other bones (such as the human thigh-bone used to make trumpets) were usually acquired from the bodies of those who had died in unusual circumstances such as victims of accident, disease, or murder. According to W. Zwalf in his Heritage of Tibet (London: British Museum Publications, 1981, p. 15), in general, 'the use of articles of bone was held to symbolise the transitoriness of life, although a skull cup of beer representing the wine of life was used in ceremony for longevity'. Since Tibetan Buddhism is based on the concept of reincarnation, i.e. where the 'soul' passes from one body to another after death, the physical remains of an individual are not associated with any sense of personal identity or ancestor worship.
1884.57.18. On display: Court, case 122.
Europe, Ireland, County Cork, Cork. Human heart in a lead case. Said to have come from the crypt of the oldest church in Cork. Acquired by Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers in 1863. Pitt Rivers served in the Army in Ireland from 1862 to 1866 and probably acquired this object while he was there. It was displayed at Bethnal Green Museum with other material from his collections, probably from 1874, and then at the South Kensington Museum. It was transferred to Oxford from there in 1884.
Shrunken Heads ( tsantsas ) in the Pitt Rivers Museum
There are ten 'shrunken heads' in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, most of which are displayed in a case entitled 'Treatment of Dead Enemies', with other comparative material on this subject from around the world.
In many cultures--including Europeans ones--the taking of heads from enemies has been a socially approved form of violence with deep religious and cultural meanings. It was not seen simply as murder, but as a way of maintaining social and cosmological order. It has always been accompanied by elaborate rituals surrounding the killing of the victim and the display of the head itself: think of the heads of traitors that were once displayed on pikes at the Tower of London to deter others from such crimes.
The shrunken heads, or tsantsas , in the display on the 'Treatment of Dead Enemies' case at the Pitt Rivers Museum are from the Upper Amazon region of South America between Peru and Ecuador. They were made by the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa, and Aguaruna peoples; distinct tribes with similar cultures. These peoples live in densely forested jungle; the women grow manioc, maize, beans, squash, and tobacco, and the men hunt and fish.
Traditionally, men from these tribes were encouraged to take enemy heads to prove their courage and manhood, and to avenge the death of a relative. While feuding might occur even between villages with fairly close kinship ties, heads were not taken in such situations. Where a raid took place on a closely related group, the heads of sloths or monkeys would be substituted for human heads. The Museum's display includes the shrunken heads of sloths and red howler monkeys.
Making a shrunken head was done by removing the skin from the skull. The skull and brain were thrown away. The skin was boiled briefly and then dried with hot pebbles and sand. The features were preserved by shaping the skin with hot pebbles as the skin dried. The eyes and mouth were closed with cotton string, and the face blackened with vegetable dye. The head was then strung on a cord so it could be worn at a ritual feast by the man who had taken it.
Making a shrunken head was part of a ritual in which the spirit of the victim (one of three souls these people believe humans have and which they believe resides in the head) was pacified and the victim was made part of the killer's group. The head was addressed by kinship terms during the feasts held for this spirit. The rituals thus serve to link enemies and the living and the dead. Since these peoples believed that human bodily shapes exist in limited numbers, and that they thus must be re-used by future generations, capturing an enemy's head and adopting that person into one's group provided an extra, symbolic body for one's own descendants to inhabit. After the rituals, the head might be kept: some men were buried with heads they had taken. However, the making of shrunken heads and the rituals held for them were more important than keeping the head.
British explorers collected shrunken heads because they saw them as exotic curiosities. The tsantsas in this case were collected between 1871 and 1936. There was such demand for shrunken heads by museums and private collectors that some were made for sale from the heads of people who had died of natural causes. Many of the substitute heads made from monkeys and sloths were also sold. It is sometimes difficult to tell apart 'genuine', substitute, and fake tsantsas , but those used in rituals were very carefully prepared, and such steps as singing off facial hair may be omitted in creating a head for sale; likewise, the ornaments on a head made for sale may be those of the tribe of the maker rather than of the Shuar or Achuar people.
The tribal peoples who made these tsantsas no longer take or shrink the heads of enemies. This practice ended by the 1960s. They still live in their homelands by hunting, fishing, and horticulture as they always have, and fight against development and its effects upon them instead of against enemy tribes.
Detailed information about the shrunken heads is available online from the museum's databases at: www.prm.ox.ac.uk/databases/.
Shrunken heads ( tsantas ) in the Collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum (note that the years given refer to the years of acquisition by the Museum):
1884.115.1. Sloth head. Collected by C. Buckley, acquired by general Pitt Rivers by 1871. Part of the Museum's founding collection.
1884.115.2. Human head. Collected by Jamrach, acquired by Pitt Rivers by 1874. Part of the Museum's founding collection.
1911.77.1. Human head, with long hair. Purchased from Mrs Sanders.
1923.88.363. Human head, with hair cut short. Donated by Major R. H. Thomas.
1923.88.364. Sloth head. Donated by Major R. H. Thomas.
1932.32.92. Human head. Bequeathed by W. Leonard S. Loat.
1936.53.42. Human head, with long hair and streamers made of beetle-wing cases. Donated by Major R. H. Thomas
1936.53.43. Human head. Donated by Major R. H. Thomas.
1936.53.44. Red howler monkey head. Donated by Major R. H. Thomas.
1936.53.45. Red howler monkey head. Donated by Major R. H. Thomas.