The Curious Case of Shrunken Head

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a very curious place, a very curious place indeed. In fact it is so curious you may not have realised you have entered it. Why? Because it shares a building with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with whom it won an award for family-friendliness. The only thing separating the two institutions is a doorway, but my word, once you have passed through it’s like you have stepped into a whole new world.

The Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum

Shrunken Heads

Pitt Rivers has that old-timey Cabinet of Curiosity feel, being from the crown to the toe top-full of oddities from  all over the world. Almost hidden in the labyrinth of cases is one marked, ominously, “Treatment of Dead Enemies.” And what does it display? Shrunken heads! The ones on display come from the deepest, darkest depths of the Amazon. Intrigued by these exotic curiosities, English explorers liked to bring them home from their travels and give (or, more likely, sell) these to museums.

Shrunken HeadShrunken Head

The happy chappy on the right is the head ‘of an enemy’ used a trophy, which makes sense considering all the decoration around the head. If you’re tempted to make your own shrunken head, the label gives you an almost step by step guide:

“The brain is removed and the head is soaked in the astringent oil of the andiroba (Carapa guianmensis) and then dessicated.”

Witch in a Bottle

Turning a corner, and I was met with another cabinet of odd things. This little silver bottle with a charming hand-written label caught my attention…

Witch's bottle
A bottle containing the spirit of a witch

We don’t know how old this bottle is, all we know is that an old lady living near Hove in Sussex (which is really close to where I’m living now!) gave it to the museum. Tantalisingly, the bottle comes with a warning from the old lady;

“…and they do say there’s a witch in it, and if you let her out, there’ll be a peck of trouble!”

Does anyone else want to know a bit more? Well, it was donated by Margaret Murray a famous folklorist but beyond that, we know very little, I can’t even find any stories of witches in the area. If anyone knows any more, please get in touch!

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