Incrustated Scull and Sword


"Fig. 1," the image on the right, depicts a petrified ("incrustated") skull. "Fig. 2" depicts a sword, also petrified.

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 4136
The British Museum

The doors to the British Museum opened to the public in 1759. Although officially founded by an Act of Parliament passed on June 7, 1753, the collections which formed the original content of the museum belonged to three men: Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) (Crook 44). Both Sloane, dubbed “the foremost toyman of his time” by the poet Edward Young, and his collection were already famous by the time George II purchased them for the museum in 1753 (Young 97). The new museum, which prominently displayed Sloane’s natural and man-made curiosities, was a success. A review published in the July 1788 issue of The New London Magazine praises the particular merits of the Sloaniana, “which excite in the contemplative mind the most exalted ideas of divine wisdom in the creation of nature, and prove at the same time a striking monument of human industry” (“An Account of the British Museum” 378).

Visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for tickets, but, as a public institution maintained by government funds, admission was free. As a reviewer wrote in 1839, “The cheapest by far of our public exhibitions as well as in other respects the best, is the British Museum, for that costs nothing” (“Synopsis” 299). Museum policies limited both the number of visitors and the amount of time they were given to look at the exhibits; in 1762, R. Dodsley recorded the rules as follows: “fifteen Persons are allowed to view it in one Company; the Time allotted is two Hours” (xxii-xxiii). In spite of these limitations, the exhibit rooms were frequently over-crowded and the museum-going experience was often harried:
Among the Numbers whom Curiosity prompted to get a Sight of this Collection, I was of Course one; but the Time allowed to view it was so short, and the Rooms so numerous, that it was impossible, without some Kind of Directory, to form a proper Idea / of the Particulars. (Dodsley xiv)
Eric Gidal notes that the British Museum was unique in this unprecedented degree of access granted to the public: "As an institution founded ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public,’ the British Museum marked a union of legitimization and freedom both aesthetic and social" (21). With free admission came crowds, and with those crowds came anxiety regarding who ought to see the collections as well as how they ought to be seen. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the museum continued to gain popularity. By 1805, 12,000 people visited annually. By 1817 that number grew to 40,000, and by 1833 over 210,00 people came each year to see the collections (Goldgar 229-30). As many reviewers noted, large and often raucous crowds were now an inescapable part of the museum-going experience:
[T]he bustling crowds which thrice-a-week are to be seen in the British Museum, swarming with aimless curiosity from room to room, loudly expressing their wonder and disapprobation of the very things most worthy of admiration, or passing with a vacant gaze those precious relics of antiquity, of which it is impossible that they can understand the value as they are, for the most part, insensible to the hallowing associations, which render these objects the links of connexion between distant ages and our own. (“A Visit to the British Museum” 42)
The behavior of these crowds generated considerable anxiety in the press, with one 1839 reviewer even going so far as to publish three “cautions” for visitors to the British Museum and other public exhibitions: “Touch nothing,” “Don’t talk loud,” and “Be not obtrusive” (“Synopsis” 302-3).
The long title of the Museum Britannicum, a guidebook to the British Museum, is as follows:

Museum Britannicum: Or, a Display in Thirty Two Plates, in Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, in that Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the BRITISH MUSEUM, After the Original Designs from Nature, by John and Andrew Van Rymsdyk, Pictors. The Second Edition, Revised and Corrected by P. Boyle. Dedicated (by Permission) to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. London: Printed for the Editor, by J. Moore, No. 134, Drury-Lane. And Sold by T. Hookham, Bond-Street, M,DCC,XCI.
“Table III, Incrustated Scull and Sword. Both of these were found in the Tiber in Rome, and are featured on two separate drawings” (Thornton 69).

Classification. Museum.

Among the vast collection of “Sloaniana” in the British Museum, 756 examples of “humana, as calculi, anatomical preparations, &c” were recorded in “An Account of the British Museum,” published in The New London Magazinein July 1788 (378). The “Incrustated Scull” would presumably fall under this category, while the accompanying sword may well have been counted among Sloane’s 1,125 man-made “Antiquities” (378). Apart from their shared provenance, what unites these two specimens is the characteristic of incrustation, or “petrification,” which Rymsdyk attributes to the mineral-rich waters of the Tiber. The sword and skull also caught the eye of R. Dodsley, who catalogs them in his 1762 guide to the British Museum: "Under this Title are deposited a human Skull and Sword, both of which are completely covered over and incrustated with the same stony Substance to a considerable Thickness, yet without losing their Form. They were found in the Tyber at Rome" (108). Dodsley seems similarly captivated by the process that forms—or alters—these objects:
In the Cabinet between the Windows are a great Variety of Incrustations and Petrifications, as Shells, Corals, and other Things: In the Petrifications the original Substance is entirely changed to a Stone; in the others it is only completely covered with a stony Matter, the Substance still retaining its pristine Qualities. There are many Springs in England and elsewhere, which incrustate whatever is left in them, for any length of time, with a Stony Surface . . . In some Places the Earth effects the same Thing on whatever is buried in it. (101)
The manner in which both the man-made sword and natural specimen of the skull have been altered by a remarkable natural process seems to govern both Rymsdyk’s interest in and association of these two otherwise disparate objects. Rymsdyk’s drawings, then, suggest a classification of these objects based upon an alteration rather than an inherent characteristic—or perhaps this alteration undermines the potential for any definitive rationale for classification. Sloane’s collections clearly emerged from the tradition of the early modern Wunderkammern, which, as Daston and Park have argued, prized objects that “challenged the metaphysical opposition of art and nature” (Daston and Park 253). It is no surprise, then, that the sword and skull present a similar dilemma: “Most wondrous of all were objects so ambiguous that spectators could not decide whether they were works of art or works of nature” (Daston and Park 287). Rymsdyk's attentiveness to the sword and skull as objects altered and imposed upon by a natural process emphasizes their curious status as classificatory puzzles, neither wholly man-made nor entirely natural.
“An Account of the British Museum.” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

"A Visit to the British Museum." The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée [afterw.] and Monthly Critic and the Lady's Magazine and Museum. Vol. XV. Oxford: Dobbs, 1839. 42-8. Print.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Daston, Lorraine and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone, 1998. Print.

Dodsley, R. The General Contents of the British Museum: with Remarks. Serving as a Directory in Viewing that Noble Cabinet. London, 1762. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Visual Representation of Culture in the Eighteenth Century.” Albion 32.2 (2000): 195-231. Print.

Rymsdyk, Jan van and Andreas van Rymsdyk. Museum Britannicum, Or, A Display In Thirty Two Plates, In Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, In That Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the British Museum: After the Original Designs From Nature. 2nd ed. London, 1791. Print.

“Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum” Eclectic Review 6 (1839): 281-306. Print.

Thornton, John L. John Van Rymsdyk: Medical Artist of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oleander, 1982. Print.

Young, Edward. The Poetical Works of Edward Young. Cambridge, 1859. Print.