A person's skeleton is the most durable part of their remains. After the papery skin and tissue of a corpse slowly decay, after the eyeballs flatten and liquefy, the bones stay intact. Because of their longevity, bones are useful in a number of academic disciplines—archaeology, anthropology, and medicine, to name a few—to learn more about human life and death. But they're also morbidly cool, and seem less disturbing than taxidermy or death masks.
In a way, skeletons are one of the least intimidating ways to engage with the dead. The lack of skin, hair, and eyeballs equates to fewer tangible reminders of the living human that once was, making skeletons far less creepy than human cadavers. Which is perhaps why some people start bone collections.
One of the most impressive private collections of human skeletal specimens belongs to Ryan Matthew Cohn, who can trace his interest in bone collecting back to his childhood in upstate New York, when he would "forage through the woods searching for artifacts to add to my already growing collection of natural ephemera and osteological remnants." Today, Cohn—who is the co-host of the Science Channel show Oddities—counts over 200 human skulls among his private collection of thousands of assorted items.
When we spoke, Cohn referred to his collection as a "human bone museum." His favorite specimens are the elongated skulls of Peru, which are 3,000 years old and look a bit like the skeletal version of Coneheads. He explained to me that "before the 20th Century, it was common for rich Europeans to travel everywhere and bring back mementos or souvenirs that created these 'cabinets of curiosities.'" Rather than collecting human remains during vacations, Cohn sources his items from de-acquisitioned museum collections, medical schools, or other private collectors.
Of course, collecting human remains is not always so simple—some restrictions do apply. In the United States, the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 criminalized the sale and transport for profit of human remains of Native Americans. Three states currently have their own restrictions in place. There are also laws in most states forbidding grave robbing, or digging up human remains from burial places.
Ascertaining whether a human bone specimen for sale in the United States has been legally sourced is fairly straightforward—or at least, the red flags are pretty obvious. Mike Zohn, co-owner of Obscura Antiques & Oddities in New York City, has been buying and selling human bones for 30 years and told me that people sometimes try to sell him skulls with obvious signs of having been buried. He immediately turns those down.
"We've been visited by Fish and Wildlife, by New York City Department of Conservation. We've had all sorts of people come through the shop and we have a clean bill of health," he said. "Everything is above board."
Ethical considerations around the sourcing can sometimes be tricky though, due to the lack of reliable record keeping. In a 2007 Wired magazine piece, Scott Carney wrote about a vast black market trade in human bones from India that continued despite the country's official ban. The 1986 ban itself was passed amid rumors that traders were murdering people for their bones.
Similarly, in 2006, the Chinese government banned the export of human remains, due to the growing trade in plastinated bodies for exhibition with very little oversight. One exhibitor of plastinated bodies alleged the source was "unclaimed Chinese bodies that the police have given to medical schools" and has a disclaimer about not being able to independently confirm this.
The 2006 China ban is one reason why the supply of human bones available on the open market has substantially decreased in the past decade. Zohn showed me a 1975 catalog from medical supply company Kilgore International, where an adult skull could be bought for as low as $27.50. Today, a skull will run anywhere from several hundred dollars to even $1,000, depending on "how complete they are, especially the teeth."
Much of Zohn's inventory are exports from either China or India, from before the countries' respective bans were in place. Zohn has also purchased bones from Masonic temples that re-purposed medical specimens, as well as estate sales by doctors. (Zohn also has a personal collection of human bones.)
There are online retailers, too: The Bone Room sells human bones online, as do some sellers on Ebay, which allows the sale of "clean, articulated (jointed), non-Native American skulls and skeletons used for medical research." Zohn also pointed me to Indian company bforbones.com where packets of 50 teeth are listed for sale for $200 plus $25 shipping (the legality is unclear).
Other bones are donated, and displayed, for medical research purposes. Many museum collections were obtained this way, rather than sourcing them from private sellers. Today, someone can even opt to donate their bones for scientific study at a body farm.
One of the largest collections of osteological specimens open to the public is at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a medical history museum that "helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease." The museum's media and marketing manager Gillian Ladley said "by far the most well known" skeleton in their collection is that of Harry Eastlack. Eastlack had Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (aka Stone Man Syndrome) and donated his skeleton to aide in research of the rare condition. Mütter is also home to the Hyrtl Skull Collection—comprised of 139 skulls from 19th Century Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl. Hyrtl studied the differences in human skulls in order to discredit the claims of phrenologists that were popular at the time and are now considered pseudoscience.
A similar collection stands on display at the Museum of Osteology. The museum's marketing director Josh Villemarette told me they have four human specimens on display at their Oklahoma City location, and seven in Orlando, Florida. Their most popular attractions are skeletons from a dwarf and one with kyphosis. Villemarette estimates that between five and ten percent of their business is from recreational collectors.
That said, the most impressive collections and displays of human bones are to be found outside the United States. Amsterdam's Vrolik Museum and Paris's Museum of Natural History have large collections of human skeletons on display. Evan Michelson, scholar-in-residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, pointed out two museums in Turin, Italy—the Human Anatomy Museum and the Cesar Lombroso—that house centuries-old human remains. The former, which dates back to 1739, offers a unique opportunity to view human specimens in its original 19th Century architectural setting.
The Lombroso Museum's history is much darker. Cesar Lombroso was a late 19th Century criminologist who collected human specimens in a futile and often racist effort to try and prove that there were hereditary physical characteristics tied to criminality. The museum—which was, at one time, not open to the public—contains hundreds of skulls acquired from the gallows of Turin, "natives from far off lands," dead soldiers, and public autopsies. Lombroso's preserved head is also on display there.
Whether the collections are private or housed in museums, and whether the bones come from private donors or dubious means, those who collect human bone specimens are serious about respect. Zohn told me it's not uncommon for people to express a certain visceral discomfort at the trading in human remains, but he has a different perspective: "We're respectful, we're not making fun of it. We love this stuff, we hold it up on a pedestal."
Another common question both he and Cohn get is if they've ever experienced "energy" or spirits in the presence of all the bones they work with. Cohn relayed the following anecdote: "If any place was going to be haunted or have spirits, it would be my apartment. I remember one time I actually thought that I saw a ghost, or some kind of vision of something. I was really excited to see what this was and why. It was actually my reflection in my vanity door."
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