Since Kristin’s 2015 post – which probably posed more questions than answers about the creation and acquisition of RAMM’s over-modelled skulls – a wealth of new information has been found on our specimen (1) from Fly River in Papua New Guinea.

Records have shown that this skull was presented to RAMM by widely-travelled, Devon-based lecturer Arnold William Riley in the 1930s, although there are no documents to indicate that our donor’s voyages ever took him to the South Sea. However, recent research conducted with the assistance of Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum has allowed us to discover that he was the nephew of one E. Baxter Riley – a turn-of-the-century missionary in Papua New Guinea who establishes a connection between the donation and the Fly River region.

Riley’s missionary uncle

We know that E. Baxter Riley was responsible for transporting at least two examples of Papuan over-modelled skulls to British museums during his time as a missionary.  The fact that RAMM’s specimen was donated by his nephew, however, shows that his family had also come into personal possession of Melanesian artefacts. This immediately poses the question of how?

Westerners travelling to ‘exotic’ colonies at this time did not hold the same beliefs about, or place the same significance, on such heads as the indigenous creators, but commonly collected these items as ‘curios’ to share with their families at home. It is likely that Baxter Riley obtained our particular skull for this reason, as a keepsake from the region and an object of interest.

This gives us a new point of consideration – the extent to which his acquisition of the skull was ethical.

At the time Rev. E. Baxter Riley was in Melanesia, the moral correctness behind collecting native artefacts was seldom, if ever, considered by visitors from the West.  Now, however, the very display of human remains in museums, let alone the circumstances of their obtainment, is a topic of constant debate.

Each individual object is ‘ethical’ to a degree defined by a variety of subtle factors from its unique history. In the case of our Melanesian skull, one such factor is that of the object’s original purpose. As mentioned in the last post, an over-modelled skull from this area could have been made as part of a funerary rite to venerate a respected and departed tribe-member, or equally as the result of a head-hunting raid on an enemy settlement. Whichever way they were harvested though, the severed heads would have undergone much the same process – washed and cleaned, including removal of the skin and brain, put in an oven or over a fire while wrapped in palm leaves and then decorated with clay, mud or other natural materials – in order to create the final product. The value which indigenous people placed upon these products differed considerably, however, depending on their derivation.

Ancestor skulls

Ancestor skulls were generally kept for a long time and revered to the extent that they became part of their tribe’s long-term culture. They were kept in men’s houses, sometimes for generations, where their physical presence could influence ceremonies and important decisions about maintaining the settlement’s welfare. By contrast, head-hunting trophies were typically displayed for far shorter periods after which they were often discarded.  The status and power created by having exhibited a trophy skull was of far greater value to the head-taker than the object itself. It may therefore be seen that the extraction of an ancestor skull would have been less ethical than that of a hunted-head, due to the comparatively significant and long-lasting role that family-remains played within native culture.

‘An ethical acquisition’ – what does this actually mean? It is generally thought to be a transaction in which there is mutual agreement between, and respect for, all parties involved.

So while the nature of the skull’s creation does influence the likeliness of there having been mutual agreement behind whichever transaction took place, the situation of that transaction is another factor bringing a bearing upon the item’s ethics. Perhaps E. Baxter Riley did not get it from the makers. He may have acquired it directly, indirectly, by sale, by force or another way entirely, and each possibility constitutes a different degree of correctness. It must be remembered that even if E. Baxter Riley bought the skull, the sale could still have been unethical. This would have been likely, due to the unequal hierarchy exerted on economy by colonial rule, which sometimes caused indigenous traders to be pressured into transactions with which they did not agree.

Recent osteological work

Recent osteological examination of our skull has shown that it belonged to a healthy adult female. The mandible was removed and has been artificially reattached. The cause of death is undeterminable. This information gives us many clues as to the reason why the person’s head was turned into our over-modelled skull (which is, of course, one of the key points for our ethical evaluation). Victims of head-hunting could be men, women or children on an equal basis.

Dr. Catriona McKenzie examining the Melanesian remains

Dr. Catriona McKenzie examining the Melanesian remains

Ancestor or otherwise, almost all skulls had their jaws removed at some point in the over-modelling process, though those harvested through head-hunts were often not remade into one piece. This was because the jaws were often separated and kept in the hunter’s house once the rest of the skull had been discarded, or they were shared out if multiple men had collaborated in catching the victim.

As documented in a chapter on the making of over-modelled skulls, from the 1925 book Among Papuan Head-Hunters, written by E. Baxter Riley himself, victims of head-hunting were ritually killed with a single blow to the head before decapitation. The fact that our skull has been kept with its mandible and has no obvious cranial damage therefore provides substantial evidence for the assumption that it was actually created as an ancestral relic. If this was the case, does the value the skull would have consequently held mean that it is less likely to have been willingly sold and more likely to have been seized?

During his time in Papua New Guinea, E. Baxter Riley would have had several opportunities to obtain over-modelled skulls without directly contacting a tribe. (2)  One example is the instance in which the reverend was given some skulls by Fly River’s Resident Magistrate. While we definitely know these to have been the two items he presented in other museums, the information shows us that there were already Melanesian remains circulating in the hands of other colonists, making it possible for it to have been them from whom Baxter Riley also acquired our skull.

A further occasion where over-modelled skulls came into the possession of missionaries was following the retributive raid carried out on an indigenous village in 1901 in response to the murder of E. Baxter Riley’s predecessor, James Chalmers. Here, over 10,000 heads were reportedly seized from the settlement, a hoard that was subsequently destroyed but from which one item taken as a souvenir would not have been missed.

These are both likely scenarios through which the skull could have fallen into E. Baxter Riley’s personal collection.  21st century ethnographers and anthropologists may draw their own conclusions as to the ethicality of them, as well as that of Arnold William Riley’s subsequent donation to the museum.

Please look out for further details of the skull’s analysis which will soon be made available by Kristin Leith in her forthcoming article. We hope that these will provide us with greater insight into just how and why it was made – information essential to answering more questions about the over-modelled skull’s indigenous value and the consequent nature of its acquisition.


  1. This over-modelled skull is mentioned in the previous blog. Its accession number is 129/1935, denoting that it was the 129th object to be acquired by RAMM in 1935. This number is a way of being able to identify the object but also catalogue and store records written about the item.
  2. In addition to the two circumstances discussed in the article (it is advisable you read these first), E. Baxter Riley may have alternatively acquired our skull from the indigenous people whom he interviewed about the over-modelling process in 1921. These men were taken as prisoners by the Government Patrol Office and were probably put under a great deal of pressure to give E. Baxter Riley all the information they could. If they had possessed an example of an over-modelled skull, it is therefore likely that they would have given it to him – willingly or otherwise – and he may have been able to retain this for his personal collection. This possibility is unlikely, however (and therefore not included in the main article), as the reason Baxter Riley conducted the interview was to make up for the fact that he had been unable to examine any over-modelled skulls for himself.


  • Baxter-Riley, E. 1925. Among Papuan Headhunters: An account of the manners of customs of the old Fly River headhunters, with a description of the secrets of the initiation ceremonies divulged by those who have passed through all the different orders of the craft, by one who has spent many years in their midst. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.