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Severed A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

Severed A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

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A startling view of Western history uncovering our obsession with skulls, decapitated (and decapitating) heads. We decry the “uncivilised” tribe or culture that worships human heads, shrunken or otherwise but it is very discomforting to learn that it was Western buyers who encouraged the trade in shrunken heads and that even up to WWII, soldiers were quite happy to send skulls (mostly Japanese) home as souvenirs. Frances Larson looks at the severed head throughout history, from the heads on poles which confronted you as you entered London through to the modern art of Damien Hurst. Prepare to be amazed, discombobulated and surprised by the history uncovered in Severed.

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Severed A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and it connects our inner selves to the outer world more evocatively than any other part of the body. Yet there is a dark side to the head's pre-eminence. Over the centuries, human heads have decorated our churches, festooned our city walls and filled our museums. Long regarded as objects of fascination and repulsion, they have been props for artists and specimens for laboratory scientists, trophies for soldiers and items of barter. Today, as videos of decapitations circulate online and scientists promise the wealthy among us that our heads may one day live on without our bodies, the severed head is as contentious and compelling as ever. From the western colonialists whose demand for shrunken heads spurred brutal massacres to the troops in the Second World War who sent the remains of Japanese soldiers home to their girlfriends; from the memento mori in Romantic portraits to Damien Hirst's With Dead Head; from grave-robbing phrenologists to enterprising cryonicists, Larson explores the bizarre, often gruesome and confounding history of the severed head. Its story is our story.

About the Author

Dr Frances Larson is an honorary research fellow in anthropology at Durham University. She is the author of a biography of Henry Wellcome, An Infinity of Things (OUP, 2009), which was part-funded by a Wingate Scholarship. The book was published to considerable critical acclaim and was subsequently shortlisted for the MJA Awards and chosen as a Sunday Times Book of The Year, as well as a New Scientist Best Book of 2009. She is also the co-author of Knowing Things (OUP, 2007), a book on the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where she worked as a researcher after receiving her D.Phil.

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Book Info

Publication date

30th November 1999


Frances Larson

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