Tattooed 18th-century head uncovered in Birmingham

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A perfectly preserved head belonging to a member of a New Zealand tribe has been discovered in a university anatomy department.

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While researching a separate project, researchers at the University of Birmingham uncovered the tattooed head along with four skulls.

The labelled heads, stored by former members of staff at the university who have since retired, are said to be those of the Maori people. They are dated between 1770 and 1840.

The tattooed head still has hair, and the eyes have been stitched closed. The entire face is tattooed.

Traditionally, in the 18th century, deceased members of the Maori tribe were decapitated and the head stored.

The head was placed in an oven in the ground and baked until preserved.

Tribe members would also keep the heads of enemies over whom they had triumphed.

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Dr June Jones from the University of Birmingham explained: “Keeping the head of a tribe member was the equivalent of having a photo of your grandmother on the mantelpiece today.

“The Maori people believe a person never dies. Their body is gone but their soul is present in the head.

“They would bring out the head during tribal ceremonies. By doing so they believed they were bringing the spirit in.

“And by keeping the heads of their enemies, they were punishing members of that tribe.”

Dr Jones said the heads were most likely brought to Britain by sailors docked in New Zealand in the 1700s. The heads were probably purchased and brought back to sell to collectors.

It is also possible members of the British navy traded muskets with the Maori people in return for the heads, Dr Jones explained.

The heads, discovered in January 2011, have today been returned to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. Museum staff visited the University of Birmingham to collect them.

Researchers will examine the tattoos to locate which communities the heads originated from, before returning them to the appropriate group.

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“I have mixed feelings,” said Dr Jones. “I am really pleased that we looked after the heads for all this time without realising, but I find it very sad that they were taken from their homeland.”