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Craniate Obsession

Katie L. Burke

Click to Enlarge ImageA book of photographs of skulls might on first impression seem morbid. But Simon Winchester’s Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection, with photographs by Nick Mann (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2012, $29.95), although it evokes a visceral response, offers much more than a chill up the spine. Skulls with deep-set eye sockets stare up at you from the pages (the bonobo, Pan paniscus, for instance). Others remain delicately expressionless (the seahorse, Hippocampus spp.) or snarl chillingly (the tiger, Panthera tigris) or look unsettling and alien (the gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica, and Atlantic wolfish, Anarhichas lupus). Yet others are frozen in a sweet, goofy smile (the Florida soft-shell turtle, Apalone ferox). The specimens depicted run the gamut of vertebrate diversity from fish to primates, and Winchester calls out differences in beaks, horns, dentition, eye sockets, auditory bullae and cranial shape, and in sagittal crests that once supported jaw musculature. Each difference offers clues about how each species and individual lived its life. Collector Alan Dudley, as represented in a biography at the beginning of the book and in his brief commentaries throughout, seems an eccentric, passionate character, and I came to appreciate his patient and careful acquisition, decision making, preparation and organization of these skulls—involving painstaking methods and sometimes malodorous processes. (Although Dudley’s intentions appear to have been good, his zeal has in the past led him to problematic excess, as Winchester relates in an introductory essay: In 2008 Dudley was convicted of breaching the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; several of the skulls from his collection were confiscated.)

Skulls displays more than 300 of the some 2,000 specimens in Dudley’s expansive collection. Mann’s stunning photographs pay tribute to the most minute details of the craniate form: the serrations along the beak of a Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), the magnificent coloration and curvature of the rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros, shown above), and the highly prized full or nearly full sets of teeth in specimens including dolphins and crocodiles. In addition to the striking photography, Winchester provides 11 essays, my favorites of which cover artistic and symbolic representations of human skulls across cultures and time periods. The skull represents life, death, power, the inevitable—and the diversity of evolutionary history. Skulls embraces these subjects. Although sometimes it is difficult to face them, sometimes it is equally hard to look away.

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