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Star Specimen: A Mineralised Skull

by | 30 April, 2015

Behind the Scenes at the Natural History Museum, London

Some time ago I got a tip-off from my regular library source about the existence of a mineralised human skull in the Museum’s collection. All she could tell me was that a scientist had been down to consult a book that contained some information about it; but she wasn’t sure what book it was.

Armed with the scientist’s name, and with visions of the crystal clear skulls of ancient Mesoamerican – and more recently, Indiana Jones – legend circling my mind, I set off to find out more.

But like the coded letter from Indy’s old friend Oxley, which lead him to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital, and the interpretation of symbols scrawled therein which lead to the subsequent discovery of the grave of a sixteenth-century Conquistador which contained a crystal skull, my library tip off set in motion an epic series of twists and turns I had to navigate in order to track down the specimen and record its story in this here blog.

After months of emails and answer phone messages, conflicting schedules and workloads that didn’t permit a spare moment to meet, I received an unexpected call from a scientist on the coast of Cornwall.

“Hi, it’s (Minerals Collection Manager) Mike Rumsey here. I’m on holiday right now, but I’ve got a 15 minute walk by myself back to my car so I thought I’d call you to talk about the skull. What would you like to know?”

Hooray, I cheered internally, and replied: “Everything!” And so he began:

“It’s a Hans Sloane specimen which dates to the foundation of the Museum, and we can trace it back quite a long way. We know that Sloane got it from the collection of a guy called Cardinal Filippo Gualtieri after Gualtieri died in 1728.

“There’s not many things we can trace back that far in the Mineral Collection.

“It’s a bit of a curiosity, really. It’s supposedly the skull of someone who had fallen into the Tiber river in Rome. It’s covered in a deposit called travertine.”

Sadly for my crystal skull fantasy, Rumsey revealed that the skull is in fact a creamy limestone colour (not clear), and contains no crystal points (and probably never did). But, he continued:

“It’s got what looks like a handle attached to it. That sounds a bit morbid, but there’s no evidence it was ever used as a drinking vessel. We think it’s a rib bone of the same skeleton the skull came from.

“Scientifically, we’ve not really done a great deal of work on it, although quite recently it was CT-scanned. I think they did find out that the skull is still in there, not completely replaced, which is quite interesting.”

An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.

An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book ‘Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum’, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.

A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Indeed, Farah Ahmed, manager of the Museum’s X-Ray CT Scan Facility, confirmed Rumsey’s belief.

“Of all the skulls I’ve had come my way, this is probably one of the most well preserved. And considering the fact that you couldn’t see it, and we had no idea what level it might have been preserved at underneath – it’s pretty special. The whole skull is intact, with only a small bit of damage above the nasal cavity, which is surprising, considering it must have had a bit of a bashing.

“That’s a rib going through its mouth. We think the whole body went in, and then the commotion and the motion of the river over time broke it up and just that rib got lodged there.”

An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

The mineralised skull is currently on long-term loan to the British Museum, and can be seen on display in the King’s Library, home to their permanent Enlightenment exhibition.

It is perhaps fitting that this specimen is no longer (at least for the next 25 years or so) at the Museum, as I am about to leave the Museum, too. The completion of my quest to track down, and uncover the history of, this mineralised skull marks my final Behind the Scenes blog before I move on to career pastures new.

Thanks for reading.

Sir Hans Sloane's mineralised skull, on display at the British Museum.

Sir Hans Sloane’s mineralised skull, on display at the British Museum.