Ann Fabian


On her book The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead

Cover Interview of December 15, 2010

The wide angle

When I began working on The Skull Collectors, human remains seemed to be causing trouble everywhere.  In the 1990s, new states in Eastern Europe unburied and sorted out the Soviet era dead.  Activists in Africa and Australia demanded bodies back from museums in Europe.  In the United States, Native Americans helped craft the legislation behind policies to repatriate and rebury the bodies gathered up by Morton and later generations of collectors.

The first years of the 21st century gave this history a new and sad turn.  Human remains disappeared in the ruins of the World Trade Center.  An administration tried to hide bodies from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And bodies floated along flooded streets in New Orleans.  New York police broke up a ring of unscrupulous undertakers peddling body parts.  Georgia authorities arrested the owners of a crematory who stacked bodies in their barn while they saved up to get a furnace repaired.  Each case a troubling reminder that dead bodies matter.

These events expanded a study that had begun as an exploration of how and why people collected skulls to encompass exploration of human burials and investigation of the lives and deaths of those whose skulls were collected.  The dead had roles to play in anchoring communities in time and place.  For some these unburied dead are lost ancestors, but for many more, they carry a shared history of a deep human need to care for the dead.

That universal history of the human need to bury the dead kept cropping up in the macabre and sometimes humorous stories of skull collectors.  Men dug up dead bodies, pickled the flesh off heads, and hiked over mountains, carrying packs stuffed with reeking body parts.  And they wrote about what they were doing.

Skull collectors liked to boast that they were not tied down by the superstitions that hobbled ordinary men.  Collecting helped them imagine themselves as men dedicated to science.  My challenge was to describe the work of collectors—how they got skulls and what they did with them—but also to describe the experiences of those whose remains were collected.