The Pitt Rivers is a museum that showcases a truly incredible selection of anthropological and archaeological objects collected over the last 125 years by the University of Oxford.
Gaining access to the museum is a surreal experience. Situated behind Oxford’s Natural History Museum, the only way to enter the Pitt River’s is to navigate through taxidermied animals and prehistoric skeletons. Located at the back of the building is an understated doorway which leads to this cavern of miscellaneous human relics.
Walking through taxideremied animals and skeletons of dinosaurs you are meeted by where at the back of the building there is an understated door way.
Once in the new museum you are met with three floors of iron verandas and countless Victorian glass boxes filled with artifacts from all over the world. Rather than being exhibited by age or geographical origin, the objects are grouped together by function.
The categories are organised into areas in their vaguest terms about marriage, death, decoration, toys, weapons, religion, magic, music, body art, clothing, food, travel, survival and so on. One of the most popular collections of artifacts is the ‘Treatment of the Dead Enemies’ which hosts a variety of shrunken heads.
The shrunken heads, or tsantsas , in the display on the ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ case at the Pitt Rivers Museum are from the Upper Amazon region of South America between Peru and Ecuador. They were made by the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa, and Aguaruna peoples; distinct tribes with similar cultures. These peoples live in densely forested jungle; the women grow manioc, maize, beans, squash, and tobacco, and the men hunt and fish.
Traditionally, men from these tribes were encouraged to take enemy heads to prove their courage and manhood, and to avenge the death of a relative. While feuding might occur even between villages with fairly close kinship ties, heads were not taken in such situations. Where a raid took place on a closely related group, the heads of sloths or monkeys would be substituted for human heads. The Museum’s display includes the shrunken heads of sloths and red howler monkeys.
Making a shrunken head was done by removing the skin from the skull. The skull and brain were thrown away. The skin was boiled briefly and then dried with hot pebbles and sand. The features were preserved by shaping the skin with hot pebbles as the skin dried. The eyes and mouth were closed with cotton string, and the face blackened with vegetable dye. The head was then strung on a cord so it could be worn at a ritual feast by the man who had taken it.
Making a shrunken head was part of a ritual in which the spirit of the victim (one of three souls these people believe humans have and which they believe resides in the head) was pacified and the victim was made part of the killer’s group. The head was addressed by kinship terms during the feasts held for this spirit. The rituals thus serve to link enemies and the living and the dead. Since these peoples believed that human bodily shapes exist in limited numbers, and that they thus must be re-used by future generations, capturing an enemy’s head and adopting that person into one’s group provided an extra, symbolic body for one’s own descendants to inhabit. After the rituals, the head might be kept: some men were buried with heads they had taken. However, the making of shrunken heads and the rituals held for them were more important than keeping the head.
British explorers collected shrunken heads because they saw them as exotic curiosities. The tsantsas in this case were collected between 1871 and 1936. There was such demand for shrunken heads by museums and private collectors that some were made for sale from the heads of people who had died of natural causes. Many of the substitute heads made from monkeys and sloths were also sold. It is sometimes difficult to tell apart ‘genuine’, substitute, and fake tsantsas , but those used in rituals were very carefully prepared, and such steps as singing off facial hair may be omitted in creating a head for sale; likewise, the ornaments on a head made for sale may be those of the tribe of the maker rather than of the Shuar or Achuar people.
The tribal peoples who made these tsantsas no longer take or shrink the heads of enemies. This practice ended by the 1960s. They still live in their homelands by hunting, fishing, and horticulture as they always have, and fight against development and its effects upon them instead of against enemy tribes. (source)
The Pitt River’s can be found at
South Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3PP
And it’s opening times are 10.00 – 16.30 Tuesday to Sunday
(and bank holiday Mondays)
12.00 – 16.30 Monday
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