Podcast S5 E1 | 36 min

A Story of Icelandic Skulls

28 Mar 2023
An anthropologist journeys to the Arctic Circle and finds a surprising story about the human remains that end up in museum collections.

“Prime harvest”—that’s how one early 20th-century explorer described his collection of Icelandic human skulls. But why did he “harvest” those skulls in the first place? And what should happen to them now more than a century after they were collected? This case of the Icelandic skulls reveals an interconnected story of eugenics, international law, and the limits of current repatriation efforts.

As reported by Adam Netzer Zimmer, an Iceland-based anthropologist, we hear how a community once targeted by anthropologists is now expanding our ideas of how to ethically handle human remains.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffee was the editor for this piece, with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel was the audio editor and sound designer. The executive producers were Cat Jaffee and Chip Colwell.

Adam Netzer Zimmer is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, specializing in biocultural anthropology. His research focuses on the rise of race-based anatomical science in 19th- and early 20th-century Iceland and the U.S. He is also interested in queer and feminist perspectives in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology, particularly in the history of science. Adam’s work has been supported by a Fulbright/National Science Foundation Arctic Research Grant, an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Leifur Eiríksson Foundation Fellowship. Previously, he was the laboratory manager for the UMass Taphonomic Research Facility and is currently a co–primary director of the Rivulus Dominarum Transylvanian Bioarchaeology project in Baia Mare, Romania.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

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Episode sponsor:

  • This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is part of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship funded with the support of a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.


Correction: May 5, 2023
In this podcast, the researchers discuss Earnest Hooton’s examination of the skulls from Haffjarðarey and Álftanes as an effort to find “racial purity.” Instead, Hooton’s work at that time can better be phrased as focusing on “racial distinctions.” His views on “race” were quite complex.

Read a transcript of this episode .

A Story of Icelandic Skulls

Eshe Lewis: There’s a faceless skull packed in a box at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Who would have removed the face and why? And if the skull was so carefully packed, where’s the rest of the body? Those questions sent one anthropologist on a journey to the Arctic Circle and revealed a surprising story about the bodies that end up in museum collections. My name is Eshe Lewis, and this story comes from producer Adam Netzer Zimmer, an anthropologist living and working in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Eshe: What makes a human?

Sarah Hoffman: It’s a wild ride. Brace yourself.

Speaker 2: Imagine the future.

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Koffi Nomedji: You have to start from scratch.

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Eshe: What makes us human?

Group: Let’s find out.

Eshe: SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human.

Adam Netzer Zimmer: The story of the skulls begins where the North Atlantic Ocean meets a cemetery.

Sarah Hoffman: All right. Should I just jump into this? It’s a wild ride. Brace yourself.

Adam: This is Sarah Hoffman. She’s a research assistant professor in the University of Buffalo’s anthropology department. She’s also an expert on 86 disinterred skulls.

Sarah: Let’s start in 1883. You have the remains of about 100 people from the cemetery on Haffjarðarey starting to erode out of the surface of the island.

Adam: Haffjarðarey is one tidal island in an archipelago off the western coast of Iceland.

Sarah: The island itself is only, like, 0.25 kilometers in size. So it’s small, right? It is only accessible on foot during low tide through an inundated, indirect path.

Adam: Despite its inaccessibility, Haffjarðarey has had many, many visitors over the centuries.

[sound of bird flying by]

Adam: On a chilly summer day in 1905, two men from Harvard’s Peabody Museum retired to their tiny cabins on the passenger ship Botnia. They had boarded the ship in Leith, Scotland, and they braved the choppy waters of the North Sea, headed to Iceland.

Although the frigid Arctic winds had rocked the boat through dinner, the men remained confident in their mission. One of them, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, would later write about the steely resolve that he and his colleagues shared.

Excerpts from Vilhjálmur Stefánsson’s journal: “We were physical anthropologists concerned primarily with skeletons, but the laws of Iceland did not permit grave robbing, even for the laudable purposes of science. We were told by a clergyman that the authorities would certainly permit us to carry away any skulls that have been disinterred by the sea. We went ahead on that basis and in about two weeks secured some nearly complete skeletons and a total of 86 skulls, most of which we found rolling around in the surf.”

Adam: Some Icelandic skulls found in the surf and ending up in Harvard’s Peabody Museum. That’s about as much as I knew at the start of this story. But I had a lot of questions, like, how did the skulls go from a remote island in Iceland to a museum in Massachusetts? Who should they belong to now? Where are their bodies? And what can this story teach us about the complicated nature of international repatriation?

Sarah: So, a mutual friend told me that you were interested in human remains that had been used for medical dissection, right?

Adam: The first time that Sarah and I ever met in person was on Harvard’s campus.

Sarah: We joined forces to return to Harvard and take a second look … second look for me. First for you.

Adam: Sarah is also the scientific editor for Lab Roots, a networking and education organization for scientists. One of the things we’re both passionate about is public science communication.

Sarah: I am working as an editor, absolutely loving it, working with my writers, promoting open access, science communication. I absolutely love it.

Adam: Sarah has made multiple trips to Haffjarðarey to document the island and the medieval cemetery where the skulls came from. But it’s not like you can just drive out to the island. Sarah’s first trip was difficult, to say the least.

Sarah: My first attempt a year before had ended with me sinking hip deep into mud and having to be pulled out by my backpack strap.

Adam: That’s when Sarah learned that if at first you don’t succeed, make a second attempt. This time with a team of five scientists.

Sarah: We had our gear in waterproof packs. We were limited on time because of the tides. I don’t recommend it. I mean, unless you really want to get a good hike in where your knees are screaming by the end of it. We got stuck there overnight because I mistimed the tides.

Adam: Did you end up just … you slept on the island overnight, then?

Sarah: We did not sleep. No. The team just decided to power through and finish up the pedestrian survey and then head back on the next low tide. [laughing]

Adam: In the beginning, Sarah was studying the remains from Haffjarðarey because she wanted to understand ancient diseases.

Sarah: Yeah. So my research started as purely paleopathological.

Adam: Paleopathological means just that: studying ancient diseases from human remains. And a medieval cemetery, of course, is a good place to do this kind of work.

Sarah: But eventually moved into trying to understand the relationship and attachment that the local community had toward this somewhat unusual place, starting in the Middle Ages and then moving up to the post-medieval period.

Adam: She’s far from the first person to make the trek to Haffjarðarey in the name of archaeology.

Sarah: Long story short, there are two, what we could call formal expeditions to the island in the first half of the 20th century. So in 1905, you have the Harvard team. And then in 1945, a salvage expedition from the National Museum of Iceland went as well and kind of did what they could to salvage what was left and record everything, which is great to have, because the 1905 expedition, of course, did not record anything.

Adam: That 1905 team was just two guys: Vilhjálmur.

Vilhjálmur: We were physical anthropologists concerned primarily with skeletons.

Adam: Who was the Harvard anthropology department’s arctic specialist and—

Sarah: John Hastings, a Harvard anthro student, who actually financed part of this expedition.

Adam: Oh, I didn’t know that part of it.

Sarah: Yeah, he did. He paid for a chunk of it, evidently. They were given some kind of permission to retrieve and collect human remains that were already exposed on the surface.

Adam: And the law was pretty explicit that you couldn’t actually dig up graves.

Sarah: But because these were on the surface and in danger of being carried away by the sea, it was cool. Apparently A-OK. Spoiler alert: It was not A-OK.

Adam: One thing to know about Iceland, both today and back in 1905, is that secrets can be hard to keep. And news travels very fast.

Sarah: Here is what the Icelandic news said: “This summer, two burial grounds were excavated, and six to seven horse loads of human bones removed, headed for America for scientific research, as it is called. One of the locations was the site of an ancient churchyard on Haffjarðarey, where the men excavated last summer, as reported taking away human remains on five pack horses, probably without asking anyone’s permission.”

Adam: The second site the Harvard team visited in 1905 was at another cemetery in a place called Álftanes, which these days is about an hour and a half drive north of Reykjavík. Because skeletons from these two sites were collected at the same time, we can’t really talk about one without mentioning the other, even though the people buried in the two are from totally separate time periods.

Sarah: The remains were shipped back to Harvard, where they’re now housed at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Hastings and Stefánsson considered their expedition a great success and called the bones their prime harvest. And that’s the whole story.

Adam: But of course, that’s not quite the whole story. I think some … a question that a lot of people would have is like, sure, they’re doing this because they’re sort of archaeologists, but do you know if they’re like, what the larger goals of this was?

Sarah: There’s a discussion where he wants to know about the Icelandic diet because his mother told him stories of how Icelanders never got cavities.

Adam: That “he” Sarah’s talking about is Vilhjálmur.

Excerpts from Vilhjálmur Stefánsson’s journal: Skeletons.

Sarah: But there’s also this implication of, you know, early 20th-century racial science, where people from Iceland were thought to be connected to Indigenous populations in the Arctic in North America. Gosh, I just hate this. But measuring skulls and looking at “ethnicity and ancestry,” all that, that was part of the goal as well.

Adam: Almost from the minute that the skulls from Haffjarðarey and Álftanes were put on the shelves at Harvard, anthropologists like Earnest Hooton were examining them for evidence of racial purity. Have you read that paper by Hooton? The—

Sarah: I have read that paper by Hooton.

Adam: Whose title I won’t say here because—

Sarah: I can’t even say the title. I’m not going to say the title.

Adam: Yeah.

Sarah: It’s rough.

Adam: Yeah.

Sarah: So the goal was to compare the cranial features of Icelanders to those of Indigenous populations in Arctic North America.

Adam: That paper we’re talking about was written in 1910. We’re skirting around the title because it contains a word that’s considered a racial slur about Indigenous peoples of the Arctic. But they used the collections from Haffjarðarey and Álftanes, or just Haffjarðarey for that?

Sarah: Hooton actually didn’t differentiate between the two. It was just, you know, the Icelandic sample essentially, which is weird because the two populations are totally different time periods and I think you probably know that the Álftanes is one is likely quite a bit later, historic. He just kind of lumped them together, measured some skulls, and compared them to other skulls to connect people in a very racially motivated way. There’s no other way to say it.

Adam: Nowadays, a lot of people think of Iceland as this quirky high-tech hub full of eccentric celebrities like Björk, Sigur Rós, or The Mountain from Game of Thrones. But that certainly wasn’t always the case. For several hundred years, Iceland was ruled as a colony of Denmark. And if you ask many Icelanders, the Danish reign was harsh. The island was settled over 1,000 years ago and almost from the start, Western scientists have thought of Iceland as a perfectly contained living laboratory.

There was this idea that Icelanders were a literal time capsule into some Nordic golden age. They settled the island and then got stuck in the saga period, while the rest of Europe “advanced.” A perfect example of this is Denmark’s human zoo at the 1905 Danish Colonial Exhibition in Tivoli. At the fair, Icelanders were put on display alongside people from the other Danish colonies. They were exhibited alongside Indigenous Greenlanders, the Faroese, and people of African descent from the Danish islands of the West Indies. Up until this point, we’ve been discussing the skulls taken from Iceland and brought to Harvard. But if Harvard has the heads, where are the bodies?

Joe Walser: My name is Joe Walser, and I am a curator of physical anthropology or biological anthropology.

Adam: Joe works at the National Museum of Iceland, which is where we first met when I was doing dissertation research. This is also where the other half of the bodies from Haffjarðarey are now stored and studied.

Joe: The National Museum was founded in 1863, but at that time it was called the Antiquarian Collection. And most of the collections at that time were actually kept in Denmark. But then in 1911, the Antiquarian Collection became the National Museum of Iceland. And prior to basically having this building, the collections were kept in the Alþingi, for example, in the parliament, in the attic.

Adam: Of course, whenever someone talks about Iceland and archaeology together, it’s almost guaranteed that there’s going to be questions about the Viking Era.

Joe: I suppose the Viking Era has always been in fashion and probably always will be. But in the earlier days, Icelandic archaeology focused a lot on finding certain individuals, or places, or evidence of certain events that would have occurred as described in the sagas.

Adam: The sagas Joe mentioned are ancient texts from Iceland with stories about heroes, blood feuds, the Nordic gods, stuff like that. It’s hard to overstate how important they are to Iceland’s history. During the colonial era, the Danes took many of them to Copenhagen, and the Icelandic government, especially Culture Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, have been working hard to get them back. Many of them have come home, but over 1,000 are still kept in Copenhagen and the calls for their return are growing louder.

In fact, Iceland is building a brand-new house of Icelandic studies next to the National Museum in anticipation of getting them back. A state-of-the-art research center built around an empty space. A vacuum filled with hope that the nation’s most precious heritage will soon be returned.

As I look down on the construction site of the new building during our interview, I couldn’t help but think of the national museum’s own storerooms, where space is also reserved for the rest of the bodies from Haffjarðarey. And I should note that the National Museum isn’t just about Iceland’s ancient past. Their collections span all the way from mittens from the 900s to plastic dresses and McDonald’s Big Macs from the 2000s. But as much as preserving physical artifacts of Icelandic life is a priority for Joe, so, too, are the stories behind them. Like the story of the human remains from Álftanes and Haffjarðarey.

Joe: Unfortunately, I don’t know that much about Álftanes.

Adam: It doesn’t seem like anybody really does.

Joe: No one really seems to. I mean, especially in context of the human remains that went to Peabody. As far as the human remains go, it’s kind of just bound up with this story of what was collected from Haffjarðarey. And I don’t really know much more detail than that.

Adam: A major part of Sarah’s research has been documenting the stories told about Haffjarðarey over the centuries. She suspects that those stories, many of which are ghost stories, could be linked to the tons of bones that have washed onto the mainland. This long-held reputation of a haunted island that pushes out the bodies of the people buried there might be how Harvard decided to target that location.

What does the museum have specifically? How many individuals are we talking about? Or maybe isolated elements?

Joe: As far as bones go, there are 58 individuals, and some of them are represented only by a skull or only by post-cranial remains or disarticulated bone.

Adam: Those 58 individuals Joe was talking about are just the remains that were excavated by the National Museum in 1945. Joe also told me that despite all the digging, the skeletal bodies that the National Museum does have from Haffjarðarey are actually in great shape.

Joe: I have to say, the skeletal remains from this site are among the best-preserved in the country, probably because they were buried in this sort of sandy substrate. So, you see almost medical-specimen–like bone preservation from Haffjarðarey, where you don’t really see this anywhere else.

Adam: I asked him if the National Museum has any idea how many remains were taken to the U.S. in the earlier 1905 excavations by Harvard.

Joe: We only know, of course, basically what’s on their website. They have a list of what is part of their collection. They do detail there if it’s a skull or whatever, but we don’t really know anything about it. And I mean, there have been several people that have gone to look at the remains, like the anthropologist Gísli Pálsson went there quite some time ago. But beyond some anecdotal stories he’s told me, we don’t know much about the assemblage.

Adam: Sarah has more details.

Sarah: No complete sets of human remains. So, there are two or three complete-ish sets … incomplete-ish sets from Álftanes in the Hastings-Stefánsson Collection, but no complete remains from Haffjarðarey. So, there’s boxes of skulls. There’s boxes of mandibles. There’s boxes of femora, pelvises, humeri. And that’s how they’re sorted out.

Adam: So as in, the people themselves are not together in one piece?

Sarah: No, not even remotely. Nothing else is associated with any other part.

Adam: And sometimes the individual elements themselves aren’t in one piece. There was one specific skull that you mentioned.

Sarah: Yes. Yeah.

Adam: That was particularly weird.

Sarah: Yeah, it had been cut, right? Like the face portion had been removed, but we didn’t have that portion. So it was just the skull without the face, which I thought was very interesting.

Adam: I asked Joe the same question I had asked Sarah: Why would Harvard researchers want Icelandic skeletons and especially their skulls?

Joe: I assume it had something to do with the type of anthropology that was happening at the time. And at this time, there was a lot of this sort of nonmetric trait analysis and a lot of sort of analysis connected with supposed “racial differences.”

Adam: Joe pointed out that it wasn’t just Harvard seeking Icelandic skulls.

Joe: There was other cases which had a more dramatic involvement in that, such as the site Skeljastaður. In 1936, some German doctors and medical students came and actually illegally looted the cemetery and took somewhere between 30 and 35 skeletons back to Germany for research in a eugenics institution, or what was a eugenics institution at the time. But of course, these were either lost or destroyed in the war. So we don’t know that much more about them.

Adam: Hastings and Vilhjálmur never explicitly wrote that race science was a motivating factor behind taking the skulls. However, the 1905 Icelandic news story about their collecting trip suggests otherwise. Sarah pulled up the article on her phone.

Sarah: Stefánsson apparently also told the owners that the scientific society they represented, “had bones of people of all countries except Icelanders and wished to add them to the collection.”

Adam: In March 2016, the Harvard Magazine said about themselves that the university was the brain trust of 20th-century eugenics. Eugenics was a popular social movement bent on engineering and controlling the genetics of the human population. Eugenics scientists were clamoring to construct biological collections that they thought could prove their pseudoscientific claims. If you’re building a skull library with a perceived racial hierarchy at its core, it’s imperative that you source skulls from the people you think are at the top.


For the National Museum, the reasons why the skulls were taken isn’t the key issue. Joe and his colleagues care more about making sure the bodies are put back together.

Joe: So, I mean, in many cases, we have the post-cranial remains of skulls that are created at the Peabody.

Adam: So, post-cranial being basically from the neck down.

Joe: Yeah, I need to stop being so technical.

Adam: No, it’s fine. That’s part of why I’m here.

Joe: So, yeah, basically we have the bodies of the people, while many of the skulls are actually in the United States.

Adam: Yeah. The heads are on one side of the Atlantic Ocean and the bodies are on the other. The National Museum did contact Harvard several years ago about the possibility of reuniting the heads from Haffjarðarey with the bodies.

Joe: We did actually at one point contact them, I think in 2016, asking about repatriation. But at that time, they mostly offered that we could submit a research proposal for review to access the collection. And really, otherwise, they just sort of said that they prioritized repatriation for cases related to NAGPRA.

Adam: That’s the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It’s a law from the 1990s that says any U.S. institution receiving federal money has to determine if their collections contain any human remains or cultural artifacts linked to a federally recognized tribe. If so, they have to put up public notices saying what they have and offering their return.

Joe: And that international repatriation wasn’t really on their on the radar at the time.

Adam: I emailed the Peabody’s repatriation office about the National Museum’s request: “Wondering if the Peabody Museum has any comment regarding this matter.” I told them that I was working on this podcast episode and wanted to know about the remains from Haffjarðarey and Álftanes, and that I was especially curious about the National Museum’s request to get the skulls back. I wanted to give them the chance to comment publicly.

As someone who’s worked as a NAGPRA consultant, myself, I wasn’t expecting a quick reply. But just over a week later, a reply came. Except it wasn’t from the repatriation office. It was from someone in their public relations department: “Blah blah blah, shared your email with me … At this time, the short answer is that no one from the National Museum of Iceland has made any inquiries with the Peabody. Of course, the Peabody would welcome conversations and those conversations would be guided by the new report on human remains found here.”

What? With that very confusing reply, I went back to Joe at the National Museum and told him that the Peabody claimed no one from the museum had ever contacted them about the Icelandic remains. After checking with his supervisors, Joe was able to actually show me the emails that were sent, time stamped, and with replies from the Peabody. I emailed Harvard again this time, including the specifics of those communications. The Peabody’s first reply to me took just over a week, but now it’s been almost two months, and I haven’t heard a peep.

Is international repatriation an issue that Iceland will have to deal with or has to deal with in terms of like, are there lots of things from Iceland that are being curated elsewhere?

Joe: There are things from Iceland being created elsewhere. Many things have been given back. So, many of the manuscripts that were taken to Denmark, for example, have been given back to Iceland. I mean, of course, there’s always the issue of space as well. So, how much is abroad and how much space do we have to receive it? But I think in many cases we don’t necessarily need to get something back because we have something comparable representing what that object was to society. You know?

Adam: So, from the National Museum’s perspective, this isn’t about all things Icelandic having to be in Iceland.

Joe: But in the case of Haffjarðarey, where there is this very clear problem about keeping people’s heads and bodies separate. I think that that brings up a different sort of situation than the existence of Icelandic remains elsewhere.

Adam: During our conversation, Joe kept emphasizing that this was not really about Harvard’s rationale for taking them in the first place. Instead, it’s a moral question about how we treat the dead.

So what would the museum’s ideal outcome be in terms of reuniting the collections or collaboration between the two institutions?

Joe: The ideal situation would be to strike up a collaboration and relationship with the Peabody Museum and sort of just begin to discuss what the options and possibilities might be. And ideally, the post-cranial remains, or the rather, ideally the skeletal remains related to Haffjarðarey, at least, would be returned to Iceland so that these people can be part of one assemblage resting together.

Adam: It seems, too, that part of the issue has been the history in anthropology of foreign researchers coming to Iceland for data collection and then just pacing out.

Joe: Foreign researchers often have a lot better access to funding, and thus they can come collect their data and leave, and we may never hear about it again. So, and then, on the flip side of the coin, in Iceland, we have less access to funding, and most publications are done either in the gray literature or in local journals.

Adam: This isn’t to say that the academic community in Iceland is somehow lacking in expertise, though.

Joe: There’s often this sort of like, let me come save the poor people that don’t know any better. And it’s just, I mean, there are specialists here. There are people doing pretty much everything that people are doing abroad. And it’s a very imperialistic attitude. I mean, I should mention that when they actually took the human remains from Haffjarðarey to the Peabody Museum, they did have a legal export permit, but that was prior to the independence of Iceland. So, the governing body that would have given that permit, of course, no longer exists. So, it was done … all of this was done before Iceland was an independent nation and had its own cultural heritage laws and heritage agency.

Adam: Questions about repatriation are rarely straightforward, but they’re gaining more and more attention. Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, has reported multiple instances of the Peabody stalling to give back photographs, funerary objects, and human remains to descendants and their communities. And if you’re a fan of John Oliver, you may have seen his episode from October 2022 about repatriation and the British Museum.

John Oliver: “Honestly, if you are ever looking for a missing artifact, nine times out of ten, it’s in the British Museum. It’s basically the world’s largest lost and found with both lost and found in the heaviest possible quotation marks there.”

Adam: Joe and Sarah both agree that if for nothing else, reuniting the remains from Haffjarðarey will just help researchers do better research. I asked Sarah what bringing the heads and bodies back together might tell us about the people buried on Haffjarðarey.

Sarah: A lot. OK, that’s simplified. So what I tried to do in my dissertation was reunite them, at least on paper, right? So I had the analysis from Harvard, the analysis from Iceland, and reunited the collection in one paper—let’s call it that. Not physically, obviously. They’re still very disconnected. But there was this idea that this was a small cemetery. And what I found in the course of my dissertation was by reuniting these two collections, it was not a small cemetery. You have a 120, 130 people in these two collections alone. And then that’s not counting the two other instances of skeletal remain removal by local inhabitants, which were buried elsewhere, which was at least another 100 people.

Adam: And unlike a lot of foreign researchers that come here, who collect their data and then the museum never hears from them again, Sara tried to make sure her data was actually useful.

Joe: She was very helpful in actually providing the raw data that she collected not only from our assemblage, but also from her research at the Peabody. So, this was like very, very telling of what is around and, you know, and what can be gained from this assemblage.

Adam: Based on that. I asked Joe what the National Museum hopes could be gained from putting the collections back together.

Joe: Well, it’s hard to say because I’ve never seen the skulls, but we might have, for example, information about the paleodemography, age and sex, when we don’t have all of the representative skeletal elements that we normally use to answer those questions. There are some cases where we have sort of suspicious lesions that I don’t think can be diagnosed even differentially without seeing the rest of the remains. So, yeah, there are things like that that having the rest of the remains might clarify.

Adam: But for both Sarah and Joe, the core of the situation is a mix of ethical and scientific problems.

Sarah: My feelings are pretty straightforward. I do think that the collection should be in one spot, and that’s just because I think it’s strange that you have the same population of people separated by such a big geographical distance.

Adam: By a literal ocean.

Sarah: Yeah, by a literal ocean. And, you know, Wild West archaeology of 1905. That’s how I feel about that.

Joe: It’s sort of just an ethical question of how do we, how is the best way to treat a human body after death? And I don’t think keeping them separate is the way forward. Also, I think that reconnecting them would provide a deeper anthropological context to the entire assemblage of people, rather than having these two assemblages separate and not in the same place, basically.

Adam: This might be an unsatisfying ending, with the heads from Haffjarðarey on one continent, and the bodies on another. But that’s where a ton of these stories about repatriation have stayed for years. Without legislation or official guidelines to push them, museums and universities don’t have the incentive or often the budget to start the process of repatriating remains internationally. The halls of our institutions are lined with the bodies of the looted dead. And until we recognize where our current efforts are falling short, they’ll remain that way for many years to come. In the meantime, Iceland and so many other places like it around the world will be waiting.

[closing music]

Eshe: This episode was written and hosted by Adam Netzer Zimmer. Adam is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, based in Reykjavik. Thank you to Sarah Hoffman of Lab Roots and the University at Buffalo, and Dr. Joe Wallace Walser of the National Museum of Iceland for contributing to this episode. Additional thanks to Hafsteinn Thorolfsson for reading excerpts from Vilhjálmur Stefánsson’s journal and for the song recording of Báran by Oddgeir Kristjánsson. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffe is the editor for this piece, with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel is our audio editor and sound designer. Our executive producers are Cat Jaffe and Chip Colwell.

This episode is included in season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is the end product of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Christine Weeber, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes, on our website, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. I’m Eshe Lewis. ¡Hasta luego!


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