ATG Quirkies: Was René Descartes a victim of “skull blasting”? A (spooky) investigation

by | Oct 31, 2021 | 0 comments

Was René Descartes a victim of “skull blasting”? A (spooky) investigation” appears in Atlas Obscura and is written by Gemma Tarlach, senior editor and writer at Atlas Obscura

A 19th-century skull disarticulated and presented using the Beauchêne Method. PATRICK LANDMANN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

“Centuries after the philosopher’s death, lingering controversy over his remains highlights a macabre practice of profiting from the dead.

“IF YOU WANT TO MAXIMIZE your profit when selling a human skull, you’re going to need some dried peas. You can substitute millet or rice grains in a pinch. You’ll also need some water, and, of course, a skull. Turn the cranium upside down, fill it with the peas or grain, add the water, and wait. As the starches absorb the water and expand, the collagen-rich, fibrous tissue that keeps the cranial bones together will weaken. Eventually, the skull will crack neatly along its sutures (though the more delicate bits around the face may be destroyed in the process). Now, instead of just one object, you will have six to eight large pieces of bone to offer potential buyers.

Unethical and gruesome, yes, but the practice known as “skull blasting” was a canny way for Late Renaissance and Enlightenment-era purveyors of relics and curiosities to meet client demand. A recent controversial case study by Swedish researchers suggests that, during skull blasting’s heyday, even the most vaunted mortals could see their skulls split into parts and sold. In fact, the skull of René Descartes, they claim, ended up in pieces in private collections—and not in Paris, where an intact skull, believed to have belonged to the father of Western thought, has resided in honor for 200 years. As proof of their claim, the Swedes point to a piece of skull in Lund University, in southern Sweden, that they believe belonged to Descartes. While France and Sweden dig in their heels over which bones are authentic, the international disagreement illustrates how far humans—past and present—will go to own a piece of genius.

“The story symbolizes the trade in human remains from famous people, how common it was to open a coffin and steal a bone and then sell it,” says Per Karsten, director of the Lund University Historical Museum in Sweden and coauthor of the recent controversial paper. “Every rich, educated person in the 18th century wanted to have something to brag about in their library…”

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