Monday, December 28, 2009

Mini Book Review: Cranioklepty: Graverobbing and the Search for Genius by Colin Dickey.


$25.95 / $30.95 Can | Non-Fiction Hardcover | 6x9 | 272 pages

September 2009

ISBN: 978-1-932961-86-7

This is an entertaining book about the posthumous history of the skulls of a few select famous people, as well as those individuals involved in keeping the skulls and parts thereof above ground. The skulls of Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig Beethoven, Emmanuel Swedenborg and Sir Thomas Brown are each discussed in detail. Dickey does an excellent job retelling the stories of each skull and his historical details contextualize the stories quite nicely.

Dickey claims that phrenology, the 19th century pseudoscientific belief that personality and mental ability could be determined via skull morphology, was the main reason for acquiring these skulls. While he does a good job summarizing the history of phrenology, he places an unnecessary emphasis on using it as the rationale for the collecting of famous skulls rather than the more likely rationales of some form of fetishism or for keeping a personal souvenir of a revered person (think along the lines of the purported remains of saints and religious figures).

While phrenology may have had a role in the creation of large collections of some early craniologists, it does not sufficiently explain the singular thefts of opportunistic grave robbers. Admittedly some of the thieves held the then-popular belief that the shape of the skull revealed the high character of its owner, but that is flimsy evidence that they carried out their secret deeds to further the science of phrenology. Non-academic collectors of human remains still exist, even today, though phrenology is thoroughly discredited.

The stories of the skulls are interesting on their own, but the justification of ‘the search for genius’ subtitle is lacking. Overall, I recommend the book for its historical interest, but as a practicing physical anthropologist, and as such, an admittedly biased critic, I was under whelmed by the contextualization of the stories within the framework of early studies of cranial variation. Such studies, broadly referred to as craniology, were common during the mid 19th century and were part of a search for anatomical basis for intelligence, but unfortunately do little to illuminate the histories of the skulls of these famous men.

-Brian Spatola

The publisher provided the book gratis to Bottled Monsters for the purpose of review.

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