Grisly Find of Human Remains in a Famous Museum Diorama: Whose Skull is on Display?
The Lion Attacking a Dromedary, formerly known as the Arab Courier Attacked by Lions, has attracted thousands of museum-goers for over a hundred years. Now it is at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where earlier this year the famed taxidermied diorama celebrated its 150th anniversary. In recognition, the museum gave it a renovation, beginning in April last year.
CT-Scans Reveal Human Remains and a Few Other Surprises in the Diorama
The Lion Attacking a Dromedary is among the oldest and most storied pieces of taxidermy on Earth. The legendary display depicts a man fighting against lions while riding his camel through a North African desert. Researchers initially believed that the display included real animal bones while the man featured in the display was thought to be a mannequin with human teeth, "We've known for ages that there are unidentified human teeth in the mannequin's head, and this is an opportunity to discover whether there might also be other bone fragments," Steve Tonsor, the museum’s director of science and research said in a statement, back in April of 2016 before the restoration started.
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The Lion Attacking a Dromedary diorama on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
Anderson and her team were restoring the diorama for over nine months. It was back on display on January 28, 2017. During the restoration work on the diorama figures of the lions, a dromedary camel, and its turbaned rider, the CT-Scans showed that the human mannequin's head actually has a real and complete human skull inside it. “The mannequin is purely a mannequin… except for the skull. It’s why the human face is as accurate as it is,” an amazed Gretchen Anderson, the museum's conservator, told The Tribune Review.
The restoration, however, revealed more surprises that had gone unnoticed for many years. There’s a tear in the camel's neck, possibly caused from the many transportations of the diorama, while the rider appears to be in a different position than he initially was, according to the archival photos. Frederick Webster, one of the most decorated taxidermists of his age and a museum employee at the time, renovated the diorama after it arrived from New York, but he could not fix the tear, which still remains. “Quite frankly, if Webster couldn't repair that at the time, I'm not doing much,” Anderson told The Tribune Review and explained that the museum will do “exactly what has been done the last 117 years: artfully drape the (rider's) capes” to disguise the tear.
Archival photo of the Lion Attacking a Dromedary diorama. (The Commons)
Questions About the Diorama’s Details and Its Creator
The diorama was first presented almost 150 years ago at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, where it won the first prize among other impressive pieces of art. Soon after it was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it became a sensation and was one of the museum’s most popular pieces. From there it went to Philadelphia in order to be featured in the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and after that it was boxed and put into storage in New York until Andrew Carnegie purchased it in 1899 for his new museum in Pittsburgh, where it has remained on display ever since.
There are two main questions popping up about the diorama: How did the skull end up there and whose head is it? The short answer is that nobody really knows. The most possible theory suggests that the skull was probably stolen from the Catacombs of Paris, an underground 18th-century ossuary, which contained the remains of millions of people.
Remains in the Catacombs of Paris. (Shadowgate/CC BY 2.0) Did the skull for the diorama come from here?
What we know with certainty, however, is the diorama’s creator had some unethical practices. Jules Pierre Verreaux, a notorious French botanist, ornithologist, and a professional collector of natural history specimens, lived during the 1800’s and would later become known for his unorthodox and unethical operations.
The most notable example of his unethical work is the “Negro of Banyoles”, a controversial piece of taxidermy of a member of the San, which used to be a major attraction in the Darder Museum of Banyoles in Catalonia, Spain. During the 1980s, a student hitchhiking in Spain ended up in the natural history museum of Banyoles, where he noticed the stuffed body of an African Tswana warrior made by Verreaux. In 2000, after many years of controversy, the body was finally shipped to Botswana and was given a proper burial ceremony in Tsholofelo park, aside a plaque reading "Son of Africa, Carried to Europe in Death, Returned Home to African Soil."
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In 1888, this image of the taxidermied corpse of the ‘Negro of Banyoles’ appeared in a catalogue of the Barcelona museum. (Public Domain)
Regarding the owner of the Arab Courier’s head, things still remain blurry. What make things even more complicated is that most scientists doubt DNA testing will shed any light on the matter, even though the museum plans to conduct further analysis into the skull to trace its origins. “We cannot repatriate (the human remains) with the information we have now,” Erin Peters, the museum’s assistant curator of science and research, told the Tribune-Review.
Ending on a positive note, Peters reassured that the museum’s researchers and their partners will continue working on a multi-part series in an attempt to better understand little details they might not know about the depicted era. “…we are hoping to continue our research, particularly with French archival resources, which have given us a number of new insights about the history of the diorama.”
Top Image: The Lion Attacking a Dromedary diorama. Source: Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Chavez, M. (2017) ‘Human Skull in Museum Exhibit Stuns Researchers.’ Available at: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2017/01/31/human-skull-in-museum-exhibit-stuns-researchers.html?utm_source=zergnet.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=zergnet_1474829
BBC (2016) ‘The man stuffed and displayed like a wild animal’ Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37344210
Plug, C. (2017) ‘Jules Verreaux’s Biography.’ Available at: http://www.s2a3.org.za/bio/Biograph_final.php?serial=2982