Object of the month: Shrunken Heads (real and fake)

As part of our development project, the tsantsa (or, shrunken head) normally on display in Medicine Man is in storage. Our replica tsantsa, however, which forms part of our cross-gallery handling collection, can still be seen. This month Charlie Morgan delves into the history and controversy of this erstwhile cultural practice. N.b. although this series is called Object of the Month, real tsantsas are comprised of human remains and we in no way mean to dehumanise them.

Shrunken head, Shuar

Shrunken head, Shuar

At some point in the mid-16th century, Spanish Conquistadors entered the Amazon rainforest and came into contact with the Shuar people. In the epic colonisation of Latin America, one more indigenous group would not have made much of an impact if it had it not been for two factors: gold and tsantsas. To gain the former, the Spanish Empire tore up its initial peace agreements and subjugated the Shuar in a brutal mining system. In 1599, The Shuar – amongst other tribes – revolted against the Spanish, sacked their towns and – as the story goes – to satisfy the insatiable lust of the Spanish governor, poured molten gold down his throat. The area never again came under complete colonial control.

To obtain tsantsas, subsequent expansionists took a different approach. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, collectors would routinely arrive in the borderlands of Ecuador and Peru, laden with money, weapons or both, dead-set on exchange. Europeans and Americans might by that time have grown to fear the Shuar, but they were still utterly obsessed with shrunken heads.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

Despite that fact that tsantsas have only ever been produced by the Shuar people, it is often assumed that head shrinking was, and is, a globally ubiquitous phenomenon of indigenous groups: Papua New Guinea and parts of Africa being oft-ventured guesses. Yet aside from re-thinking our assumptions of where they might be made, it’s also important to consider the why.

The Spanish colonialists assumed the Shuar were a very warlike people’ because of the 1599 revolt and because they shrunk human heads – both, apparently, for no particular reason. However, while we now know the first was a legitimate act of anti-colonial resistance, we also know that the second was done for a very specific purpose.

Central to historic Shuar belief systems is an adherence to the idea of multiple, yet interlinking, souls, and one of the most powerful is the vengeful soul. Traditionally, if someone were to be killed in battle, the greatest fear of the murderer would be that the dead person’s soul could wreak havoc upon them from the afterlife; in order to prevent this happening the soul would have to be trapped. As the Shuar believed that the soul resides within the head, the best way to do this was to shrink it. Click here to read about the head shrinking process.

While head shrinking may be a unique trait of Shuar history, heads have been removed from foes in numerous places and in most cases they have been prominently displayed. At the Tower of London, heads of executed traitors were rammed onto spikes and in medieval Japan those removed by Samurai would be treated similarly. Not so with tsantsas.

Shrunken heads were produced to trap souls; once done, the soul had no way of escaping. The crucial part was not the end product but rather the process. As such, despite the fact that some heads would be paraded at feasts and hung up on display, others would be thrown away or even given to children to play with. In reality, a tsasnta only attained value as an object in itself when, akin to gold, it was integrated into the global networks of modern capitalism.

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Henry Wellcome obtained the shrunken head normally displayed in Medicine Man from the Stevens Auction Room in 1925. It cost £25 but it’s entirely possible that wasn’t just for the head: Stevens was well known to bundle objects together if he knew Wellcome was interested. He would then hike up the price as far as he could. How the head got to the auction in the first place we don’t know, but by the end of the 19th century the Euro-American lust for tsantsas was so extreme that more were being produced for trade than for the trapping of souls. Collectors would trade guns for heads and the guns would create heads to be traded for guns. For those that try to explain indigenous practice through colonial ideas of ‘modernity’ vs. ‘backwardness’, this is problematic because if head shrinking was a ‘backward’ practice it was far more escalated by ‘modernity’ than limited by it.

There is one final caveat. While the collecting of tsantsas was often very destructive it would be a mistake to see the Shuar as just passive victims. One aspect of the trade can be better explained by our replica tsantsa than by the real one. The shrunken head in our handling collection is made out of animal skin but is otherwise produced in exactly the same way that a human one would be (and looks remarkably similar). At the height of 19th century trade, wealthy collectors would often purchase tsantsas and put them on display, unaware that what they had been sold was made of animal skin. It’s estimated that this applies to 80% of all shrunken heads ever displayed. Like most objects in Wellcome Collection, the tsantsa tells more than one story.

Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Fancy being a curator?

With Wellcome Collection’s development project underway, the Youth Programme team wanted to recruit young people to develop their handling collection, to be used during study days and future projects. From January to April 2014, Visitor Experience Assistant Muriel Bailly had the chance to work alongside the team on a fantastic project called Fancy Being a Curator? and tells us about her experience. 

Developing a new collection is always challenging, even for experienced curators. Luckily we had just the right people for the job: a group of nine young people aged 14 to 19 who volunteered to take part in the project. Over only five sessions they managed to acquire the most wonderful objects for our handling collection.

To help the group to become familiar with the museum’s collection, they visited our galleries on the first day of the project, as well as our stored collection at Blythe House. Needless to say, it was a heavy day for the participants. They had to absorb an incredible amount of information! Lesser individuals may have run away but the group bravely stuck to it, their curiosity triggered by our collection.

The youth group get to grips with Henry Wellcome’s collection by visiting Blythe House. (©Wellcome Images)

The youth group get to grips with Henry Wellcome’s collection by visiting Blythe House. (©Wellcome Images)

Over the following sessions the group met with various key staff members at Wellcome Collection to get an understanding of all aspects of collection management. With Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, they discussed curatorial decision making: how do you decide what is worth acquiring and what isn’t? How do you create a narrative through your collection and how do you communicate this narrative effectively through label and panel writing?

Members of our Visitor Experience team, Jeremy Bryans and Rob Bidder (yes, the famous one from our Curious Conversations), explored the galleries’ handling collection with the group and discussed how we use it in context with visitors.

After these sessions, newly armed with information and insight, the group were ready to buy new objects for our collection. After seeing so much of our collections the group brainstormed and identified the main themes for the new objects: the history of medicine; body image; and the history of sexuality. By the end of a very long day of intense research on the internet, the group had acquired 14 objects linked to the themes identified. They got it spot on.

For instance, for the history of sexuality (to complement the Chinese sexual aids and Victorian anti masturbation device displayed in Medicine Man), we now have a collection of 1920s sexual education booklets which make for delightful reading:

“Never wear social dress to business. A low neck behind a counter or at a desk is as much out of place as high heels shoes and thin hose. Dress with becoming modesty.” Extract from Sex Facts for the Adolescent and Matured Woman by S. Dana Hubbard, M.D, New York.

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

After ordering the objects, our young people met with conservators Stefania Signorello and Amy Junker Heslip to discuss the conservation and monitoring needs of the newly acquired collection.

Finally, for the last day of the project, the youth group curated their own exhibition. They put on a display of their objects in our brand new studio and delivered handling sessions, talks and had fun with visitors popping in.

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

I was aware we were asking much from these young people. Over only a few weeks they had to build familiarity not only with our large collection but also with the principles of collections management and develop the confidence to expose their work to other museum professionals, but they did it brilliantly. The success of this project is, to me, a perfect example of the wonderful things that can happen when you give voice to your audience and visitors. I hope to see more of this, both here at Wellcome Collection and elsewhere.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Plague doctors

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

For this week’s final post we will leave the Medicine Man gallery to explore the wonders of the Wellcome Library. In yesterday’s blog I mentioned that Goa stones were used, among other things, to cure the plague. Oddly enough, this was not the most desperate attempt.

Europe faced a long and deadly episode of plague in the 14th century called the Black Death and plague itself was still found in Europe until the 19th century. The pandemic originated in China and spread to Europe along the Silk Road, reducing the world’s population from 450 million to 350 million. The disease spread extremely rapidly leaving even the most reputable doctors and physicians clueless as to the causes of this new killing machine. As a result, many made the decision to flee, making room for less experienced doctors and opportunists.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive costume.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive costume.

Speculations were made on the potential causes of the plague and amongst the most popular was the theory of miasma. This theory advocates that diseases such as cholera and Black Death were caused by “bad” or “polluted” air. In the 17th century, the French physician Charles de Lorme, who was a personal physician of many members of the Medici family in Italy and to the French royal court, created the iconic plague doctor outfit to protect himself from catching the disease when visiting his wealthy, infected patients. The costume is made of a wax-coated canvas outer garment and wax-coated leather pants as well as gloves, boots and hat.

The most iconic part of the costume is no doubt the leather mask with its curved beak and fitted glass domes. The beak was intended to hold the fragrance supposed to protect against the “plague air”. Favourite scents were lavender, camphor, mint, cloves and almost anything else with a nice, strong smell. Charles de Lorme was soon imitated in the rest of Europe by doctors in the infested cities although many plague physicians lacked any medical training. Plague doctors also practiced bloodletting to “rebalance the humors” (discussed in a previous post). The costume is described in a 17th century poem:

As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where’er they go 

Although de Lorme died at the honourable age of 96, his costume did very little to protect other physicians and prevent the spread of the disease. The Plague was not entirely eradicated from the European soil until the 19th century.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Goa stone

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

Throughout human history, poisoning has been a method of murder, suicide and execution. The long list of people who met their end at the hands of poison includes the Greek philosopher Socrates, the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra and a variety of Roman emperors. Even today, poisoning remains a threat for royalty, political figures and military leaders.

Oval goa stone, 1601-1800.

Oval Goa stone, 1601-1800.

Goa stones, such as the one usually on display in our Medicine Man gallery, were for centuries considered the only cure for poisoning. Goa stones are named after their place of origin, Goa in India. They are the artificially manufactured versions of bezoar stones: a mixture of gallstones and hairs found in the stomach of deer, sheep and antelopes. Many of us may first have heard of bezoars from Professor Snape lecturing in Harry Potter’s first year Potions class:

“A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.

The original bezoars did indeed come from the stomach of goats found in the mountains of Western Persia and were introduced to Europe from the Middle East sometime during the 11th century. They remained popular there as medicinal remedies until the 18th century. The term bezoar comes from either the Persian “pahnzehr” or the Arabic “badzehr,” both of which mean “counter-poison” or antidote.

Supplies were limited, however, so in the 17th century a group of Jesuit monks in the Portuguese colony of Goa began producing man-made bezoars from a paste which included exotic ingredients such as narwhal tusk, amethyst, ruby, emerald, coral and pearl. The method of administration consisted of scraping a little bit of the surface of the bezoar or Goa stone into water or wine and drinking the mixture. The monks truly believed that the manufactured bezoars would have the same properties as the real ones and, therefore, save lives.

At a time prior to modern science and medicine most people had absolute faith in the medicinal properties of the stones. Wealthy clients were prepared to spend huge amounts of money for the remedy purported to cure almost everything from poisoning to plague and depression. England started importing Goa stones in the late 17th and early 18th centuries for a very high price.

The exquisitely carved case for an artificially manufactured version of a goa stone.

The exquisitely carved case for an artificially manufactured Goa stone.

On top of their (literally) incredible medical properties, Goa stones were also very beautiful and refined objects. Containers for the stone were often made of stone and exquisitely decorated with Mughal trellis designs including creatures such as unicorns, griffins, dromedaries, monkeys, stags and lions with human heads. They soon became a status symbol as well as, or maybe rather than, a medicine.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish remedies: Tobacco resuscitation kit

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

In yesterday’s blog on bloodletting I introduced the concept of the four humors. A theory put together by the ancient Greeks and Romans who considered that good health was maintained via the correct balance between our bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. It may seem hard to believe that a practice such as bloodletting survived until the 19th century based on this theory, but various other medical devices have been developed in an effort to address the balance of the four humors.

Resuscitation set, 1801-1850.

Resuscitation set, 1801-1850.

My personal favourite is the tobacco resuscitator kit (above) usually displayed in our Medicine Man gallery. In 18th century London, two physicians (Doctors William Hawes and Thom­as Cogan) were concerned at the number of people wrongly taken for dead and buried alive.

In 1774, they founded the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned” known today as The Royal Hu­mane Society. Swimming was not a popular sport in Georgian London and, in 1773, 123 people died from drowning in London. Hawes and Cogan believed that if they had administered a quick and effective treatment, some of the victims would have been brought back to life. Since the theory of the four humors was still widely spread and commonly accepted at the time, they based their observations on it: drowned people have an excess of wet and cold in their humors so a rational way to cure them, 18th century style, was to quickly reestablish the balance by introducing warmth and administering stimulating vapors, such as tobacco, into the body.

A man recuperating in bed at a receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, after resuscitation by W. Hawes from near drowning.

A man recuperating in bed at a receiving-house of the Royal Humane Society, after resuscitation by William Hawes from near drowning.

Traditional resuscitation kits, such as the one displayed in our Medicine Man gallery, contain the equipment necessary to inject into the lungs, stomach or rectum. Resuscitator kits were provided by the Royal Humane Society of London and placed at various points along the River Thames.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Bloodletting

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicks off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

People have always been fascinated by illness and disease, whether out of self-interest, general curiosity or morbid preoccupation. It’s interesting to look at how people in the past dealt with various afflictions and how effective (or not) they were. Looking back, some make more sense than others and then there are those that really make you wonder…

The first object from the collection to illustrate this is the scarificator and bleeding bowl. They are used for bloodletting and can usually be seen in our Medicine Man gallery. Bloodletting is the practice of making a small incision in someone’s veins to let the excess of blood out (not arteries: the patient would bleed do death within seconds).

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

Can someone have “excess” blood? If you believe in the theory of the four humours, or humorism, then yes. Ancient Greeks and Romans mapped their understanding of human health and the body on their understanding of the universe. For them the harmony in the universe was maintained by the right balance of the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) and the four seasons (hot, dry, cold and wet). Similarly, good health was ensured by the right balance of the four humours, or body fluids, within our body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

In the 2nd century AD, when Galen discovered that arteries carried blood, as opposed to air (as it was believed until then), there developed a need to “purge” the excess of blood previously not accounted for. From that moment, the practice became very popular and remained so until the 19th century.

During the 1800s, the practice of bloodletting was extremely fashionable in Europe, particularly in the UK, where people in good health were bled as regularly as they went to the market. It was considered a preventive action to boost your health, not dissimilar to drinking fresh orange juice or a yogurt type drink every morning today.

Another popular method of bloodletting was to use leeches. By 1830 France imported about 40 million leeches every year for medical purposes and in 1840 England imported 6 million leeches from France alone for the same purpose. The practice lost favour in the 19th century when doctors and researchers started questioning what the actual beneficial effects of bloodletting were. However, other inefficient and harmful treatments were still available, such as potions and tonics.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Today, bloodletting (or phlebotomy) is still practiced to cure specific illnesses such as haemochromatosis (iron overload) and polycythemia (high blood volume).

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Future)

This is the last of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. If you have visited us over the past seven months you may have noticed that, although we are open as (un)usual, the building doesn’t quite look like itself. Our gorgeous neoclassic building is undergoing a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors. The full unveiling will be this autumn and, to tide you over, Muriel Bailly talks us through what’s changing.

Our development project is being carried out by Stirling Prize-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre. We are increasing the space available to the public by transforming storage and office areas. Here is the architect’s vision for the building:

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

The first thing that probably caught your attention is the dramatic spiral staircase (highlighted green in the image above) starting on the ground floor and rising all the way up to level 2, leading directly to a new version of the library’s Reading Room and our new restaurant, Wellcome Kitchen. To those who enjoy our Wellcome Café, don’t worry: the café will be staying too. On level 1, our permanent collections Medicine Now and (the thoroughly missed) Medicine Man will fully reopen. They’ll have a slightly different layout but still contain all your favourite objects. The first floor will also welcome a brand new gallery space opposite Medicine Now, which will be an exhibition space allowing for year-long thematic shows. Our Youth Programme team, who work with local youth groups on some amazing creative responses to our collections, will have their very own studio on the first floor acting as their creative cauldron.

Here’s a sneak peek of what’s happening behind the scenes:

The entire development project will be finished by the end of autumn 2014 but different bits and pieces will reopen as they are completed. Some new spaces have already been finished and can be enjoyed by our visitors. For example, new spaces in the library were revealed to the public recently: a new staircase connecting levels 2 and 3 and a much larger rare materials room.

Wellcome Library Rare Material Room before/after ©Wellcome Library

Wellcome Library’s rare materials room before/after ©Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Collection Development Project is well underway. Here are some milestones to look forward to as work continues over the next few months. Please note that our timescales have to be quite loose in able to prepare for any minor delays that may occur.


  • Spring
    • Medicine Man will reopen, likely to be around mid-May
    • Exhibition gallery on the ground floor reopening for our Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Object exhibition in May
  • Summer
    • Restaurant on level 2 opens
  • Autumn
    • Youth Studio opening
    • new exhibition gallery on level 1 opens
    • Reading Room on level 2 opens

The development project is due to be complete at the start of October and everyone will be invited to come and explore all the new spaces.

For now though, just watch this space!

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Present)

This is the second of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer looks at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.

We last left our story with the death of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and the Wellcome Foundation subsequently facing a restructure. It was decided in the year following Henry’s death that the budget was to be cut for Wellcome’s beloved Historical Medical Museum, with the newly established Wellcome trustees recommending that it focus solely on the history of medicine as opposed to the Museum of Mankind Wellcome had envisaged. Meanwhile, the Second World War had nearly arrived at the nation’s doorstep and the staff at the Wellcome Research Institute (as it was then known), worked indefatigably to prepare the museum for reopening alongside the magnificent Hall of Statuary.

The Wellcome Research Institution's building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

The Wellcome Research Institution’s building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

By 1939, work was complete on nine reconstructions of historic pharmacies which had been mounted as part of the proposed permanent exhibitions within the new remit of the museum (see image below). In the years that followed, large swathes of the area surrounding the building on Euston Road were bombed. The Wellcome Research Institute did not escape unscathed: nearby Gower Place was hit, resulting in the building and some artefacts sustaining damage. The Wellcome Research Institute building was structurally sound and was returned to its former glory following some repairs.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

In 1946, the Wellcome Historical Medical Library was finally ready to be opened and readers were able to utilise a converted Hall of Statuary as a reading room. Not long after the Library had settled into its new location, the decision was taken to make 183 Euston Road into the official headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, forcing a nearly complete museum to be packed up once more and consigned to storage, this time at Portman Square. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Historical Medical Museum began to be reassembled in the building on Euston Road where it remained (in a reduced form) until the late 1970s. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of what continued to exist of Henry’s enormous object collection was transferred to the Science Museum in London, where it would form the basis of two permanent public galleries (first opened in 1980) and where the Wellcome Wing was later established in 2000.

The Reading Room in 1962.

The Reading Room in 1962.

Until the turn of the 21st century, various projects pulled the focus away from the exhibition of Wellcome’s collection on Euston Road. While the cataloguing of Henry’s numerous objects continued, as well as the mounting of several successful temporary exhibitions, the focus of the building was in large part influenced by the growth of the Wellcome Library. During the 1970s, a diploma in the history of medicine was established, as was a new collaboration with University College London to create a joint academic unit known as the Wellcome Institute.

In 2007, Wellcome Collection opened as a free destination for the incurably curious. Permanent galleries saw a small selection of around 300 objects from Henry Wellcome’s collection make up the Medicine Man exhibition, while the exploration of scientific innovation and advancement through the experiences of doctors, patients and contemporary artists formed the Medicine Now gallery. Along with a busy programme of temporary exhibitions hosted over the past 7 years and with the Wellcome Library busier than ever, 183 Euston Road has certainly come a long way from its rather inauspicious roots!

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

Alas, this institutional history really only tells part of the story of this magnificent building. We on the Visitor Services team have also been privy to viewing the very heart of human nature laid bare in our exhibition spaces since the museum was refurbished in 2007. We have watched couples endure rather painful public breakups and have also interrupted some rather amorous liaisons. We’ve heard tales of exam stress and have awoken people who may have simply found the content of our exhibitions a bit too stimulating (perhaps absorbing knowledge through osmosis?).

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The folklore associated with a building of a relatively long historical standing is fundamentally acquired through an accumulation of tales over a number of years. If you haven’t been able to stop in to see us recently, do keep an eye on how Wellcome Collection is changing, and be sure to think of the hidden history of the building the next time you indulge in your incurably curious nature by paying us a visit.

The final Object of the Month instalment looks to the future as our building at 183 Euston Road undergoes a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

To posit the posset

February has rolled in and with it the proliferation of sniffing, sneezing and hacking coughs ubiquitous in your local environment. If you are unlucky enough to have befallen this dreadful predicament, Rob Bidder offers an archaic remedy: the medieval posset.

Although you can’t visit our Medicine Man gallery at the moment (due to the development project currently underway) you can still enjoy some of its objects. Normally, among the erstwhile chamber pots and bleeding bowls, you’d see a very unassuming piece of crockery resembling a cross between a teapot and a biscuit jar. This is our Posset Pot. Henry Wellcome collected many such objects that were at one time a common household item. But what exactly is a posset?

Posset pot with lid, England, 1701-1800. Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Posset pot with lid, England, 1701-1800.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

These days, the word has come to describe a lemony, blancmange style desert, but the posset of antiquity was a hot, milky, medicinal drink used to treat maladies as varied as malarial fevers, smallpox, the common cold and sleeping problems. The drink contains eggs, a sweetener such as syrup and usually some kind of ale or wine to separate and curdle the mixture. After the curdling, the liquid part can be poured out of the pot’s spout, leaving the sweet omelette solid (or “spoonmeat”) to be eaten separately.

You may be familiar with this elixir from various cultural sources. They are mentioned in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth drugs the bedtime drinks of Duncan’s guards. In John Masefield’s mystical children’s book Box of Delights, Kay Harker drinks a posset to clear his head before bed. It remained a popular choice of beverage from the 14th to 18th century, often being a staple at celebrations such as weddings.

Elaborate posset pot, tin glazed earthenware, English. Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Elaborate posset pot, tin glazed earthenware, English.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

One of the most famous posset recipes available is that of Sir Kenelm Digby from his posthumously published 17th century recipe book The Cabinet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Digby himself is an interesting character: he was the son of an executed gunpowder plotter but still managed to find respect and renown as a courtier to King Charles I and II. He was a privateer of note, a patron of the arts (notably to Van Dyke), a devout catholic (when it was controversial, even dangerous, to be one), a natural philosopher and considered to be one of the deepest thinkers and brightest scientific minds of his time, despite his penchant for scrapping.

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The whole of Sir Digby’s recipe book is on Project Gutenberg and provides an intriguing insight into 17th century eating habits among the wealthy, providing evidence of recipe swapping and variations on many edibles, drinkables and esoteric potions such as the Powder of Sympathy, a magic-alchemical mixture that was used to heal wounds by applying it to the weapon used to cause the injury.

Frontispiece illustration of 'Sympathia' (Powder of Sympathy) Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Frontispiece illustration of ‘Sympathia’ (Powder of Sympathy).
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

There are many posset recipes in the book but here is one I tried personally:


Boil two wine-quarts of Sweet-cream in a Possnet; when it hath boiled a little, take it from the fire, and beat the yolks of nine or ten fresh Eggs, and the whites of four with it, beginning with two or three spoonfuls, and adding more till all be incorporated; then set it over the fire, to recover a good degree of heat, but not so much as to boil; and always stir it one way, least you break the consistence. In the mean time, let half a pint of Sack or White muscadin boil a very little in a bason, upon a Chafing-dish of Coals, with three quarters of a pound of Sugar, and three or four quartered Nutmegs, and as many pretty big pieces of sticks of Cinnamon. When this is well scummed, and still very hot, take it from the fire, and immediately pour into it the cream, beginning to pour neer it, but raising by degrees your hand so that it may fall down from a good height; and without anymore to be done, it will then be fit to eat. It is very good kept cold as well as eaten hot. It doth very well with it, to put into the Sack (immediately before you put in the cream) some Ambergreece, or Ambered-sugar, or Pastils. When it is made, you may put powder of Cinnamon and Sugar upon it, if you like it.

A few terms used in the above recipe may need explaining.

  • Sack is a fortified wine; you can use Sherry or Madeira as a substitute.
  • A possnet is a type of metal boiling pot with feet; I used a normal saucepan.
  • Ambergreece (or ambergris) will be very difficult to find, so just forget about that. For those not in the know, ambergris is a waxy grey excretion from the digestive system of a sperm whale. Speculation is that it is made up of all the hard matter that a whale can’t digest (such as the beaks of squid) and is thus extremely rare. I can’t think of anything that could be used as a substitute for this strange material.

I found the drink a bit too rich and sweet for my taste so I used full-fat milk instead of cream and reduced the amounts used to half volumes, but after drinking I felt both energised and satisfied. I’d highly recommend making yourself a posset on a cold and grotty day.

I also paid heed to the uni-directional stirring technique though and opted for clockwise; it’s up to you if you go anti-clockwise, but I can’t be responsible for any foul consequences that result from that decision.

Rob Bidder is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and the illustrator of our #CuriousConversations.

Object of the month: Drilling the head

Bronze Age skull from Jericho. Wellcome Images.

Bronze Age skull from Jericho. Wellcome Images.

Why do so many surviving skulls from the stone age bear the marks of early brain surgery? Muriel Bailly digs deeper into the history of one particular skull in our collection.

While studying archaeology I had always been fascinated by the impressive scientific knowledge of our ancestors, especially in medical sciences. As there is no better place than Wellcome Collection to study the history of medicine, I was very pleased when I first started working here and discovered that there is a trepanned skull from Jericho dated from 2200 BCE on display in the Medicine Man gallery.  This trepanned skull shows that our ancestors were already capable of practicing successful craniotomy 4000 years ago, and with access to neither anaesthetic nor antiseptic!

The word ‘trepanation’, or ‘trephination’ is derived from the Greek typaron meaning to bore, and it literally means to drill a hole into the skull. It is the earliest form of surgery known to us: the first evidence of trepanation has been dated from 6500 BCE for a specimen found in the French necropolis of Ensisheim (Alsace). All around the globe, archaeologists have found specimens dated from the Neolithic period (10 000 BCE/4000–2500 BCE) presenting evidence of trepanation. The hole would have been made by scraping the bone with sharp stones such as flint or obsidian while the patient was still conscious, although they would potentially pass out from the pain.

A large number of trepanned skulls have been found in Europe, Africa and Southern America, proving that this was a common technique. But why would our ancestors want to put themselves through this much pain?

Meticulous studies have shown that trepanation was essentially carried out on young men and that most specimens presented evidence of head injury. The percentage of those who recovered from the operation (including our specimen at Wellcome Collection, who survived repeated trepanations) shows the astonishing degree of technical skill of people from the Neolithic era, but leaves the question of motive open. Researchers today still have different interpretations of this practice. Indeed, since science and magic were – at that time – of the same nature, it is difficult to differentiate the ritual or magical motives of trepanation from the therapeutic or medical ones.

Because a large number of trepanned skulls also show evidence of head injury, some researchers see a therapeutic motive to this practice. This procedure was carried out to relieve the blood pressure underneath the surface of the skull, as well as to remove bone fragments from the wound. In that case, what about the other percentage of the population who underwent trepanation and do not have evidence of head trauma? It is strongly believed that trepanation may have been used to cure various diseases that are believed to have their seat in the head, such as headache, epilepsy and even depression.

Our specimen at Wellcome Collection suffered four trepanations and managed to survive all of them. There is evidence of regrowth of the bone, indicating that the individual lived on for many years after the operations. In addition to the trepanned holes, we can see evidence of head injury on the top of the skull, supporting the idea that this person had trepanations as a medical treatment following an intracranial trauma.

During the Neolithic period, Jericho was a very important settlement. Various city-states were established on the land, and the presence of large defensive walls suggest that the city-state kings were frequently attacking each other. Between 2400 and 2000 BC, the size of the settlements diminished under the pressure of Bedouin attacks. Could our specimen – dated 2200 BCE – have gained this injury during one of these battles? It is possible, although we will never be sure.

After the Neolithic period trepanation became much less common, to such a point that during the 18th and 19th centuries surgeons would reject the procedure outright, owing to its almost one hundred per cent chance of mortality! However, you’d be mistaken if you thought the procedure had died out altogether. It’s still practiced today in its early form – as opposed to our modern craniotomy – by medicine men in Kenya and Algeria.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Service Assistant at Wellcome Collection.