Dozens of human skulls of Black people — some hundreds of years old — will be returned to their communities of origin for reburial, according to a commitment by the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Last week, the Penn Museum issued both an apology for possessing the skulls in its historic Morton Collection, and outlined a plan to repatriate them.
“The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton Collection,” wrote Christopher Woods, who became the new director of Penn Museum on April 1. “It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.”
The Morton Cranial Collection includes nearly 900 human skulls obtained during the early 19th century by a Philadelphia scientist named Dr. Samuel Morton, who sought to determine racial differences. He measured their cranial cavities — the part where the brain sits — by filling the skulls with peppercorns, then emptied them out and measured the volume of the seeds.
Morton believed a larger cranial cavity indicated better intelligence. He used his data to lend scientific support to white supremacy, which he wrote about in his 1839 book, Crania Americana. Morton is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Scientific Racism.”
Today, brain size is not considered proof of higher intelligence, and Morton’s racist conclusions are not accepted by the scientific community. At issue now is the way he acquired the skulls: mostly from grave robbers. About a dozen are believed to have been dug out of a potter’s field in Philadelphia where poor African Americans had been buried. Over 50 more were exhumed from a graveyard of African slaves in Cuba.
“It was gathered unethically. None of it was with consent. These folks couldn’t consent, given their position in society,” said Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a Philadelphia activist.
When Muhammad learned of the Morton skulls two years ago, at an event presented by the Penn & Slavery Project, he felt it in his own bones.
“My body was hot. My heart was pounding. I was really enraged, really angry at knowing this information,” he says.
Muhammad is among those demanding that the skulls be repatriated from the museum, which has held them since 1966.
As one of the largest collections of historic human skulls in America, the Morton Collection has been used by modern researchers to study more benign things like the effects of diet and disease on the anatomy.
The origins of the collection, which was expanded after Morton’s death in 1851, has never been secret: during a public lecture in 2011, Penn Museum Keeper of Physical Anthropology Janet Monge called Morton a “flaming racist.” Many of the skulls were kept in a glass case inside a classroom until last summer, when, under pressure from activists, the museum removed them and began seriously considering how to address the problem they represented.
“It was the direct result of the killing of George Floyd, the rise of Black Lives Matter,” said Woods. “This is what brought this issue to the forefront.”
This month, Woods released a plan to form a new committee that will assess and determine how each skull will be repatriated: to Cuba, to communities in Philadelphia, and — if appropriate — to Africa. The committee will include people from Penn’s offices of Social Equity and Community, Government and Community Affairs, the University Chaplain and General Counsel.
Some activists who have been rallying for the repatriation of the skulls welcome the move, but think it does not go far enough. “Penn admits that this is harmful. That’s useful as an apology. But I think the apology has to be more robust,” says Muhammad. “There’s a commitment to a conversation with community, but we want a commitment to have the community on this committee, and not just Penn people. Right now, as it stands, [it] is only Penn staff.”
Muhammad is also demanding that all scientific data collective from the skulls — collected both by Morton and any researcher thereafter — not be used, as the data was not collected by consent of its subjects.
One of the challenges of sending these skulls back where they belong is determining where exactly that is. Dr. Morton keep very little information about the people to whom these skulls belonged, other than their race.
“The pseudo-scientific research that he conducted was to justify white supremacist views of race,” Woods says. “That was the one element of this that he was interested in. So those individuals are identified by race.”
The process by which the remains will be repatriated will be modeled after the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
However, unlike Native American remains, which are often associated with a known tribe, these skulls are essentially cut off from their own history. Take the example of a skull from an African slave in Cuba — the rest of the skeleton is still buried in Cuba, but while alive that person had been stolen from Africa, his native land. So where does the skull go?
The repatriation process will involve a combination of professional research and consultations with relevant communities to determine the best way to lay the bones to rest with dignity.
“These were not just not consensually acquired, they were in many cases violently acquired: graves robbed, scavenged from battlefields, taken from gallows across the world,” says Paul Wolff Mitchell, a PhD anthropology candidate and a fellow of the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery Project. “In a collection with that kind of history, it’s necessary to really forefront the wishes of the descendant community with regard to what’s to be done with these remains.”