Published by Liveright on November 17th 2014
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Though its title sounds relentlessly gruesome, Severed is less a look at severed heads themselves and more an investigation into the human fascination surrounding them. Anthropologist Frances Larson looks at different ways humans have approached heads throughout history, including the gathering of trophy skulls during World War II, the pseudoscience of phrenology, and dissection for modern medicine.
Early in the book, Larson discusses the collection of Shuar shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which have long been a constant source of attention. The heads, once used by the Amazonian tribe in rare religious ceremonies before being discarded, quickly gained value when the Shuar realized Westerners were willing to buy them for a high price. Soon, the Shaur were making the heads specifically to sell and the market was flooded with fakes made from animal skulls, including some in the Pitt Rivers collection itself.
“People think that large, raucous crowds at executions belong to a distant era in our past, and so they do, but the more I have read about the history of executions, the more I think that the gradual concealment of executions from the public eye over the last two hundred years—and even, to some extent, the demise of torture as a method of punishment—has had less to do with popular opinion and more to do with the preoccupations of polite society.”
The idea of being fascinated by severed heads while ignoring the barbarism of viewing decapitation itself crossed over into the public executions of the French Revolution and even modern terrorism. Though her text was written before the recent rise of viral beheadings by ISIS, Larson touches on the issues of morality that circle when we have access to executions at our fingertips. These videos quickly become and remain leading search terms and top downloads, contributing to Larson’s theory on “polite society”.
While the topic itself may make readers squirm, the actual content of Frances Larson’s book is quite contained and endlessly interesting. More than just a look at decapitation, Severed is a history of human minds, bodies, thoughts and fears.