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Smoked Heads

Smoked Heads

In a drawer in my filing cabinet I keep a photograph of General Horatio Gordon Robley seated on a cloth-draped bench in front of a wall mounted with thirty-four Maori heads. The photo has no date but was probably taken when Robley was in his mid-fifties, about 1895. What remains of his hair has been combed carefully across the dome of his head, his eyebrows and moustache are slightly grizzled. His dress and posture are casual but correct; he wears a collar and tie and some kind of ornament in the buttonhole of his lapel. He sits, legs crossed, one hand slipped into a trouser pocket, his jacket open below the top button, a watch chain visible across his vest. In the other hand he holds a wooden weapon across his lap, a short, fiddle-shaped Maori club called a wahaika. He is posed front-on to the camera, head turned slightly to one side, and he gazes into the middle distance with an expression that is difficult to read.

About half an inch to the left of Robley’s right eye, which due to some trick of the camera gleams slightly, is the empty eye socket of a preserved Maori head, a particularly striking Maori head with a tousled mass of hair, broad cheekbones, and a square jaw. It is, you might almost say, a handsome face. It is clearly the head of a young man and there is something tender about it and ghoulish at the same time. Above, below, on either side are more heads ranged in rough, uneven rows: grim, black, disembodied objects with hanks of hair and greenstone ornaments hanging from their ears. Their skin is dark and shiny like leather, on some you can just make out the moko or tattoo. Their eyelids are sewn shut—except for one whose glass eyes give it a mournful cast—but their lips are open, stretched back as far as they can go to reveal perfect sets of clenched white teeth. They look as if they were snarling or sneering or grimacing in pain, though one might almost be smirking. Marsden, the missionary, had a name for it: he called it that “ghastly grin.” But it was Robley who captured the essence of the expression. They had, he wrote, a look of “life-in-death which once seen can never be forgotten.”

The way the picture is composed, one instantly sees Robley’s head as one among many. It lies in the same plane and is on the same scale and occupies the position of the second head from the right in the fourth row down. The difference, of course, is that Robley’s head is attached to something at the neck, while the Maori heads float in space, mounted by invisible means, casting only the faintest of shadows. The message of this composition cuts both ways, suggesting, on the one hand, that the Maori heads were also once attached to bodies and belonged to individual men, an idea strongly reinforced by the remarkable preservation of their features. And yet, on the other hand, it is obvious that in this context they are objects, examples of a type, specimens in a collection, while Robley is clearly a collector.

At the end of the bench on which Robley sits are two small objects about the size of cantaloupes that look as smooth as polished stone. They are the heads of children and they have a different look about them from the rest. Their mouths are shut, their eyes are closed, and they look as if they were sleeping. They are not the first thing one sees in the photo but, rather, almost the last, and they seem to tell a different story, or perhaps complicate the story that Robley and the grown-up heads tell.

I have taken the photo out of its drawer and it is lying on my desk half-covered by some papers when my son, Abraham, comes into the room.

“What’s that?” he says, picking up the picture. I hear the mix of curiosity and horror in his voice.

“They’re Maoris,” I tell him. “It’s a collection of heads.”

“That’s a gross kind of collection.” And then, with the aplomb of a scientifically-minded nine-year-old, he picks up a book in which the preserving process is described in detail. “Can I read this?” he asks.

“Sure,” I tell him. “Just don’t try it on anyone you know.”

… the preparation of the skull was called Paki Paki or Popo, which signified taking out the brain. The heads were then steamed in the oven several times, and after each steaming were carefully wiped with the flowers of the kakaho or reed, and every portion of flesh and brain was removed, a small thin manuka stick being inserted between the skin and bone of the nose to preserve its form. This over, the heads were dried in the sun, and afterwards exposed to the smoke of their houses. The eyes were extracted, the sockets filled with flax, and the lids sewn together …

These heads for me are an exercise in understanding. I find them mesmerizing but not repellant. I am not appalled by accounts of the process, by the idea of dropping a head into boiling water, or wrapping it in leaves and steaming it in an earth-oven until the skin slips off the skull. It does not distress me to learn that in the final stages of preparation the head was heated and basted with fat (I do wonder what kind of fat they were using). But it occurs to me that perhaps I don’t really understand what any of this means. I think of the heads as a test of my ability to imagine what I will never know; maybe the fact that I’m not appalled means that I haven’t imagined it properly. On the other hand, I am committed to the idea of disinterested curiosity and to the way of seeing it represents: an empirical, purely secular approach to the things of this world. It is a stance with roots in the Enlightenment, one that arose in the days of Cook, and it is certainly cultural; I would never expect my Maori husband to share it with me. But even within my culture it seems to suit people of a certain temperament better than others. I think it suits both Abraham and me.

I value this point of view because it enables me to do what must be done. Although it is difficult to look at this photograph and not see the wholesale exploitation, even slaughter, of one people by another, it is important to try. Because that is not the story this picture tells us. The story this picture tells is a story of colonialism and it has its sordid aspects, to be sure. But it is not predominantly a story about the impact of one culture upon another like a hammer on a nail. It is rather the story of two systems colliding, like trains heading in opposite directions that have mistakenly been shunted onto a single track. It was the Maoris who took and preserved these heads; it was the Europeans who bought and sold them. And it was the interaction of the two that made possible a photograph in which a man in a morning coat can sit looking unperturbed surrounded by trophies with shining teeth and sunken cheeks and albatross feathers in their hair.

In 1864 Horatio Gordon Robley, then a lieutenant in the 68th Durham Light Infantry, arrived in New Zealand as part of a British imperial force sent to occupy Tauranga. An amateur artist, he took his sketchbook with him and made many drawings of Maori life. He sketched canoe races and storehouses, war dances, cemeteries, funerals, soldiers, forts, churches, and battles. He paid particular attention to Maori art, especially the art of the tattoo, which was even then disappearing under the influence of the missionaries, and he earned a reputation for oddity by going around after battles and squatting in the mud next to Maori corpses in order to copy the designs on the faces of the dead. He was an avid collector of coins, curios, and other objects, including mokomokai or smoked heads. In 1896 he published a monograph called Moko; or Maori Tattooing, which remains an important source book on the history of the artform.

Although most Polynesians practiced some form of tattooing, the Maoris were famous for their facial tattoos, which were excruciatingly painful and took years to complete. A full facial tattoo was considered a sign of the highest distinction and only the most important and aged chiefs succeeded in acquiring it. The designs might cover every inch of the face, even the eyelids and the lips, with patterned bands and spirals. Each moko was unique, and though generally symmetrical, they often varied slightly from side to side. It was considered by its wearer to be a sign of his identity and some of the earliest deeds and contracts entered into by Maoris show, instead of a signature, a drawing of the signer’s moko, ingeniously represented in two dimensions, as if the head had been flayed and the skin laid out flat upon a table.

The Maori method of applying a tattoo might almost have been designed as a test of endurance. Not content to prick or lightly score the skin, the Maoris carved their designs into the face with a chisel dipped in a solution of charcoal (or, in later years, gunpowder) and tapped with a wooden mallet, a process one early observer referred to as “being chipped.” Naturally, it was considered unmanly to groan or writhe or give any other indication of discomfort, but the handful of Pakeha sailors and vagabonds who had themselves tattooed in the early decades of the nineteenth century reported that the process was almost unbearable. The resulting scars left the skin ridged and rough, and sometimes, if the cuts were made too deep, interfered with the facial muscles. But it also gave the wearer an ageless look, making the young look older and the old look young, for “where moko is elaborated,” wrote Robley, “time can write no wrinkles.” Notwithstanding the difficulties of the ordeal, all men of status underwent some degree of tattooing, as did most women, though less extensively and usually only on the lips and chin.

The relationship between tattooing faces and preserving heads is an obvious one, and in some sense, it was the moko, or tattoo, that was being preserved. In later years tattooed skin was salvaged from other parts of the body; Robley tells of cartouche boxes made from the tattooed skin of a man’s buttocks and thighs. But it was heads that Maoris really valued. Traditionally, the heads of both enemies and friends or relatives were preserved. But in either case only the heads of the most exalted, and therefore the most fully tattooed, were considered fit for preservation (although exceptions might be made in the case of a favorite wife or child). The curing of the head, writes Robley, was “an acknowledgment of the nobility of its owner” and served to keep his memory alive. When the head of a family member was preserved the lips were sewn together in the middle, making an elegant shape of the mouth, like two almonds side by side. This gives the face a comparatively quiet expression, unanimated, almost serene. Heads of this type were considered treasures and were kept carefully hidden away by the family of the deceased and brought out only on important occasions.

It was a different matter with enemies’ heads. These were the heads most often seen and described by Europeans, and the ones, generally speaking, that turned up in private collections and museums later on. In the case of an enemy, the mouth was left unstitched—thus the ghastly grin—and the head was treated with a curious mixture of reverence and contempt. Early visitors to New Zealand often reported seeing them fixed on the ramparts of a pa, or fortification, or stuck on poles outside a village, where they were taunted and jeered at by passers-by. According to the Reverend Yates, a warrior would stand and address his enemy’s head in words that that went something like this:

You wanted to run away, did you? But my mere [weapon] overtook you, and after you were cooked you were made food for my mouth. And where is your father? He is cooked. Where is your brother? He is eaten. Where is your wife? There she sits, a wife for me. Where are your children? There they are, with loads on their backs, carrying food as my slaves.

For all this, mokomokai served an important political purpose. The central governing concept of Maori political life was utu, a word that is often translated as “revenge” but means something closer to “satisfaction” or “reciprocity.” Utu demanded that both favors and grievances be repaid in kind, but it was the grievances, naturally, that caused the most trouble. Tribes often went to war to settle scores that had been nursed for generations, and this, in turn, laid the foundation for what Marsden called “new acts of cruelty and blood,” creating new grounds for utu. Heads, in this context, served as bargaining chips in tribal negotiations. In order to conclude a peace treaty the parties might require an exchange of heads. Or if an important chief fell in battle the deliverance of his head might be enough to bring the hostilities to an end. By the same token, it was said that if a chief destroyed an enemy’s head while it was in his possession, it was a sign that he would never make peace with that tribe.

All this changed with the arrival of the Europeans. Among Maoris, heads might be traded, but only for political reasons and not in the commercial sense, as one kind of good to be exchanged for another. One could not purchase potatoes, for example, with a head—an idea that would have struck any Maori as obscene. Heads were highly sacred objects, imbued with a significance or power that could not be converted into something else, particularly something base or worldly. For eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europeans, however, heads were instantly understood as curios, like dinosaur bones or iridescent beetles, objects of aesthetic and scientific interest, and there was a great desire on their part to obtain them.

The first “sale” of a Maori head occurred during Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation of New Zealand. Towards the end of January, 1770, the Endeavour was reconnoitering an area of coastline about seventy miles from Tasman’s Murderers Bay. Going ashore one afternoon, Cook, Banks, and Tupaia, their Tahitian translator, met a family employed in preparing a meal. A dog was cooking in an earth oven and there were some baskets containing food nearby. Looking casually into one of these, Banks reported that they saw two bones, “pretty clean pickd,” which, upon examination, proved to be those of a human being. Although Maoris up and down the coast had repeatedly and freely admitted to the practice of eating their enemies, Cook and his companions felt the need to be convinced. So Banks began to question the Maoris. “What bones are these?” he asked.

—The bones of a man.
—And have you eat the flesh?
—Have you none of it left?
—Why did not you eat the woman who we saw today in the water [referring to a body they had seen floating in the bay]?
—She was our relation.
—Who then is it that you do eat?
—Those who are killd in war.
—And who was the man whose bones these are?
—Five days ago a boat of our enemies came into this bay and of them we killd seven, of whom the owner of these bones was one.

Cook then took a bone and asserted that it was not the bone of a man but rather that of a dog. “But [the Maori] with great fervency took hold of his fore-arm and told us again that it was that bone and to convence us that they had eat the flesh he took hold of the flesh of his own arm with his teeth and made shew of eating.” Which plainly showed, Cook added drily, “that the flesh to them was a dainty bit.”

The next day a small canoe came out to the ship and Tupaia questioned the Maoris further. Where were the skulls, he asked, “Do you eat them?” To which an old man replied, “We do not eat the heads … but we do the brains and tomorrow I will bring one and shew you.” A few days later he reappeared, bringing with him four preserved heads. Banks immediately grasped what sort of things these were, describing them as trophies and likening them to scalps taken by North American Indians. The old man, Cook reported, was extremely reluctant to part with any of the heads, but Banks at last convinced him to sell one, that of a teenage boy whose skull had been badly fractured, for the price of a pair of linen drawers.

In the days before the arrival of Europeans, Maoris fought each other in sporadic, limited, inter-tribal wars, conducted during the summer months by small kin-based parties of perhaps two hundred men. They used clubs and spears of hardened wood, bone, or stone. They had no real projectile weapons, no bows and arrows, no slings except for killing birds, while the spear, or taiaha, was used in the way a majorette uses a baton, twirled and thrust, but not typically thrown. This meant that hand-to-hand combat was the norm. No one expected to be killed at a distance and all the defensive techniques that had been developed over centuries of regular warfare assumed that as long as your enemy could not reach you he could do you no harm. Thus, the gun, even the unreliable flintlock trade musket in circulation at the time, was greeted by those who first felt its effect, writes the historian, R. D. Crosby, with “a deep and widespread despair.” Describing a battle in which the defending tribe had never before experienced musket-fire, he writes, “the initial reaction of stunned silence was followed by a wail which grew in volume as awareness of the horror of the power of the musket struck home.”

The first appearance of guns in Maori inter-tribal warfare dates to 1807 when they were used in a battle at a place called Moremonui. The guns did not, on this occasion, ensure their owners’ triumph. On the contrary, so many of their bodies were left on the beach that the battle came to be known as Te Kai a te Karoro or the Seagull’s Feast. But among those who survived the slaughter was a clever young rangatira from the Bay of Islands named Hongi Hika. It was Hongi who first recognized that the key to future success lay in the acquisition of the Pakeha’s guns. He was entirely motivated by utu, that is, by the desire to avenge his tribe’s losses at Moremonui and elsewhere. He was not fundamentally interested in Europeans, except insofar as they were able to provide him with the means of achieving his goal. The accident of history is that Hongi belonged to Nga Puhi and Nga Puhi came from the Bay of Islands and the Bay of Islands was the first major port of call for European vessels, which meant that he was among the very first to have significant access to guns.

Hongi led his first great raid against his southern neighbors, the tribes of the Bay of Plenty, in 1818. The taua, or war party, consisted of over 900 men, of whom fifty or so were armed with muskets. They returned to the Bay of Islands in January of the following year, bringing with them 1000 prisoners and hundreds of heads—one witness counted seventy piled in a single canoe. The next year Hongi sailed to England with the missionary Thomas Kendall. Kendall was seeking ordination; Hongi was seeking guns. In London he and his cousin, Waikato, were presented to King George and showered with presents, including a suit of armor from the Tower of London. On the way back home they stopped in Sydney where Hongi sold everything—except the armor which he liked to wear—and used the money to buy guns.

On the way back to New Zealand he encountered two of his long-standing rivals before whom he laid out his new collection, saying,

E mara ma! O friends! O Te Horeta! and Te Hinaki! Behold! this gun is “Te Wai-whariki” [the Blood-stained Stream], this is “Kaikai-a-te-karoro” [the Seagull’s Feast], this is “Wai-kohu” [River Mist] this is “Te Ringa-huru-huru” [the Warrior’s Arm], this is “Mahurangi” [the Exalted],

naming one by one the defeats that Nga Puhi had suffered and that he intended to revenge. Almost as soon as he returned to New Zealand, Hongi embarked on an expedition of war unlike anything the Maoris had ever seen. He had 2000 warriors and 1000 guns and there was not a tribe in New Zealand that could withstand him.

These were the opening salvos of the Musket Wars, a period of intense internecine warfare that lasted almost three decades and resulted in tens of thousands of Maori deaths, the decimation of whole tribes, and the depopulation of entire regions. Hongi was by no means the only force behind the devastation—by the early 1830s almost every major tribe in New Zealand was at war—but he was one of a handful whose desire to see old debts repaid mutated into a taste for pandemonium. It was, however, a self-limiting disorder. As Nga Puhi proceeded down the North Island, exacting retribution for old wrongs, their victims naturally concluded that they too must have muskets, no matter what the cost. The price of a musket in 1820 was a ton of dressed flax, the principal commodity of European exchange and soon whole tribes began relocating to swamps, where the plant grew in abundance. People sickened in the damp and neglected the cultivation of their food crops. The demand for slaves skyrocketed—slaves who could only be had by raiding tribal neighbors—to meet the insatiable need for labor to produce more flax.

It takes almost no imagination to predict what happened next. Maoris soon realized that European traders would pay in guns and ammunition for preserved, tattooed heads. Almost overnight the market for heads exploded, transforming what was once an honor reserved for the few into a base, mercantile affair. No head with a good tattoo was safe and in order to increase the supply chiefs began tattooing their slaves with the express purpose of selling their heads as soon as they were finished. All kinds of insane stories began circulating, like the one recorded by Frederick Maning of a head that was selected, sold, and paid for while its owner was still alive. Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, an item described as “Baked Heads” appeared on the list of imports at Sydney customs. Not surprisingly, Maoris quickly stopped preserving the heads of their friends and relatives, leaving only those of enemies, slaves, and unfortunate Pakehas in circulation.

By the early 1830s this vicious cycle—heads for muskets, muskets for heads—had spiraled out of control. In Sydney, Governor Darling issued a general order prohibiting the importation of heads into New South Wales, and what had begun in 1770 as an exercise in scientific curiosity (tinged perhaps with pleasurable horror) became a capital offence. This effectively stopped the trade, but by then hundreds of Maori heads had made their way out of New Zealand and into the hands of collectors around the world. Robley lists some of the collections in which they were held in the 1890s, including the British Museum, the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, the Florence Anthropological Museum, the Smithsonian, the Paris Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, and the Royal College of Surgeons in London. There are, or were, Maori heads (and a few tattooed heads of Europeans) in New York, Dublin, Rome, Moscow, Hamburg, and Copenhagen, and many other American and European cities, while Robley himself had perhaps the finest collection in private hands.

Simply looking at him in this picture, surrounded by his collection of heads, one could be forgiven for thinking Robley an archetypal colonial: arrogant, cold, acquisitive, smug. Has he no feeling, one wonders. Can he not see that these too were men, whose grief and pleasure were no different from his own? Why does he not distinguish between carved inanimate objects, like the wahaika he holds in his hands, and the carved human remains on the wall behind him? And yet it should be said in Robley’s defense that his treatment of these objects was motivated by respect and admiration for them as works of art, and by a powerful desire to understand them in a scientific sense. Even an untutored observer will recognize the continuity of style between the carving of Maori weapons, canoes, and house posts, and the lines on a tattooed face. From an aesthetic or technical point of view it is all of a piece, and it was Robley’s wish to preserve a unique aspect of Maori material culture that was on the verge of vanishing in his lifetime.

I had had this photo for about a year when I showed it to my sister-in-law. She took one glance at it and looked as if she were going to be sick.

I was appalled. She was appalled. But we were appalled for different reasons.

“They’re somebody’s tupuna,” she said. “Ancestors. Imagine if it was your grandfather.”

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t see my grandfather, with his snow white hair and steel grey eyes and his papery old man’s skin, decapitated, smoked, and mounted on the wall of a photographer’s studio flanked by a Maori warrior in a dogskin cloak holding a Smith and Wesson. There is no precedent for such an image. One can only invent it by inverting the details. Nor, to be frank, could I connect in that emotional way with any image of a man I’d never known. The heads in this picture were not those of her grandparents, they were people who could not be fewer than five or six generations distant. Nor was there any evidence to say that they were Nga Puhi; they were probably not even members of her tribe. In fact, if you wanted to get right down to it, they were probably her ancestors’ enemies, victims of the great Nga Puhi, like as not.

None of this made any difference to my sister-in-law. It didn’t matter that they were not her relations, that nobody knew whose relations they were, that no matter how vivid they looked, they were basically anonymous. To her there was something deeply shocking, almost pornographic about the heads. What wasn’t clear to me was whether it was the heads per se, the horror of them, or the idea of the collection and the Pakeha collector, that had upset her.

After that I carried the photograph back and forth to New Zealand like contraband, tucked inside in a book hidden in my suitcase. I thought of showing it to my mother-in-law, who took a keen interest in Maori history and who, I thought, might have interesting information to share. But I was afraid of what she might say, of what she might think of me, as if this would prove conclusively that I was a barbarian, to have so little feeling for the dead. It was like the other things I wanted to know about but didn’t dare to ask—religious things, customary things, things that conflicted with Christianity, things that had been suppressed.

I suppose I could have gotten rid of the photo but I’d become attached to it over the years. Its discovery had been one of my research triumphs. I had found it quite by chance in a box of photos in the library of the Bishop Museum. The boxes were poorly catalogued, and no one seemed to have any idea that such an image might be in there. Finding it was a Eureka moment, and I remember looking around me to see if anyone else had caught a glimpse of what I’d found. I paid for a copy and had it posted to my home. At first I imagined I would use it as some kind of illustration, maybe even the cover of a book. But gradually I realized this was not going to be possible and I put the photograph away. Now, after almost a decade, it is out on my desk again.

“I’ve been here for eleven years and I’ve never taken these out of their box before,” the curator is saying.

My husband and I have come by appointment to see a pair of Maori heads held in an American museum. They are sitting on a table in the warehouse covered with a piece of tissue paper, having been set out earlier in anticipation of our arrival.

The curator, who has brought us here, is putting on protective clothing—smock, gloves, mask.

“Is that to protect you or the heads?” I ask.

“Both, really.”

I wonder what the heads, which have been in a perfect state of preservation for almost two hundred years can do to anyone now.

“There’s a lot of weird dust around here,” she says. “I don’t think you can be too careful.”

I walk slowly over to the table with the heads. One corner of the tissue paper is slightly lifted and beneath it I can see a couple of teeth. For a minute I feel a shiver of contact with the supernatural. Then the curator lifts the sheet of paper and the feeling vanishes.

What I see before me are two heads, slightly smaller than I’d expected, the color of oak, with dry, dusty-looking hair. Their ears are shriveled; at first my husband thinks they’ve been cut off, but no, I tell him, look closer, there they are. It must be the effect of the drying process. Their teeth are intact but rather yellowed. The moko is much less vivid that I had expected, just a series of faint, rather delicate, blue lines and I can see now why it is so hard to decipher in the photographs. It is not at all obvious to me how one would tell if the tattooing had been added posthumously—making the head a “fake” in nineteenth-century terms—though Robley says it is easy to distinguish. Taking a closer look, I can see that on one of the heads the lines appear to have been inscribed, though on the other I simply cannot tell. One of the heads is in a better state of preservation than the other. Interestingly, this one has its mouth stitched closed in the center, again, something I did not expect to see.

There is almost no information about their provenance. One was received by the museum in 1904, the gift of Boston physician and art collector Dr. Charles Goddard Weld. The other, the better of the two, was purchased in 1926 from S. Healey, and came, according to the catalogue, from an old French collection. Old, of course, is a tantalizing word, suggesting that it might have been acquired in or around the Bay of Islands where much of the earliest collecting took place. Many of the oldest heads in European collections were traded by Nga Puhi, though of course, they probably belonged to people farther south. Curiously, the hair on this head is tightly curled—the catalogue suggests it “has been curled,” as if the wearer had been fashion-conscious. I think it more likely that the hair is just naturally curly. This is not the classic Maori look, most Maoris have wavy hair, but people can certainly be found whose hair is quite kinky. My husband, for example.

After we leave I ask him what he thought of the heads.

“What do you mean?” he says.

“I don’t know. Did you think they were spooky? Did they feel like real people? How did you feel when you were looking at them?”

“I thought they were kind of small.”

“Yeah. And …?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t really feel anything.”

This is the experience I am having. I, too, didn’t really feel anything. After the first flicker of excitement, which seemed to have as much to do with their being covered up as anything, I couldn’t seem to generate any reaction to the heads. I was almost more aware of the curator, of her vague distaste for the objects I had asked her to unwrap, of her busy schedule and the fact that we were taking up her time, of an uncertainty on my part about how long I should spend looking at the objects, about whether I should touch them (in the end I did not), about the fact that the curator had never been curious enough to look at them in eleven years. In the swirl of all these other issues, the heads themselves seem to disappear. Already I find I cannot remember many of their details.

“What color would you say their skin was?” I ask my husband, as we are driving home.

“Kind of yellowish brown.”

I put my feet up on the dashboard and look out the window of the car. My husband turns on the radio, which is tuned to some station the children like, and we merge onto the freeway to the sound of some sweet but silly pop tune. I think about my sister-in-law and wonder how she would have felt if she’d been with us in the museum storeroom, whether the experience would have heightened or lessened her revulsion, whether she would have even agreed to go. And why does my husband—her brother—not share these feelings? Why does he seem like me, nonplussed, in the presence of these gruesome talismans? Is it a measure of his assimilation? Is it because he’s a guy? Is he, as my mother used to say of me from time to time, unfeeling? Or is there nothing there to be felt, nothing more to be communicated than the facts, the historical circumstances which produced these objects, nothing supernatural after all?

“I suppose it depends on what you think happens after death,” the curator had said mildly as she closed and locked the warehouse door. “My husband, for example, believes that we just return to the earth, to the physical elements we are made of. These heads would never bother him.”