Art and Artifacts Revealing Bodies
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Remains of the Body

Detail of 'Remains of the Body'. Photograph by Rosamond Purcell, © 2000. Click for a larger, full image.

Remains of the Body

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia houses a large collection of 18th- and 19th-century specimens and artifacts that artists and photographers are sometimes invited to work with. This particular skull is one of a collection of 139 skulls from central Europe that were donated to the museum by the 19th-century anthropologist Joseph Hyrtl.

Hyrtl believed that the body developed according to the environment, but that the mind developed according to "Divine Will." He collected skulls to study the ethnic characteristics he believed could be deduced from them. Like the carving on a gravestone, the side of each skull is inscribed with biographical information‹sometimes as much as birth date, name, nationality, religion, occupation, and cause of death. This skull came from the catacombs of St. Steven, but that is all we know about the person.

I placed the skull on a chromolithograph showing the dissection of a woman to imply that in the beginning is the end: an historical past is implicit in every birth. Because I have also worked in the catacombs in Palermo, I photographed this particular head as a tribute to the Capuchin monks whose mission is to preserve the remains of the dead.

Trepanned Skulls

Detail of 'Trepanned Skulls'. Photograph by Rosamond Purcell, © 2000. Click for a larger, full image.

Trepanned Skulls

This photograph is a composition of the plaster casts of skulls from Peru that are currently held by the Mutter museum in Philadelphia. It shows the post-surgical effects left by the instruments of trepanation.

Trepanning is a universal, historical method for drilling into the skull. It was used, among other things, to treat headaches that were thought to be caused by pressure on the brain. As I wrote in my book, Special Cases, "Unlike the anthropological practice of cutting into the skull after death to determine the shape (of the brain), trepanning occurred while the patient was alive and it left neat borings and cross-hatchings in the skull."

Although not visible here, the wound often healed, indicating that the practice of drilling holes in the skull does not necessarily kill the owner. Trepanation is still practiced today by a small group of devoted advocates who believe that unhealthy mental pressures are alleviated by this practice.

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