- - Sunday, March 31, 2019


By Brian Switek

Riverhead Books, $26, 276 pages

Call the genre “All-About-X” books, volumes that cover unlikely but particular subjects. Friends of mine have written or agented several: An omnibus of the olive; an anthology of encounters with angels; Mark Kurlansky’s “Cod: Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.”

One was sold on the basis of an elevator pitch made by a Dubious Author’s Agent to a Distinguished Senior Editor while riding up to the executive suite in a Manhattan tower. Agent: “A hopeful came to me with an over-the-moon idea for a skein of yarns about snakes starting in the Garden of Eden.” Editor: “I love it! I’ll buy it.” Which she did.

Now comes a book about osteology that nearly promises to tell the reader almost all about bones except how to pick them. In “Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone,” Brian Switek offers a compendium of organic chemistry, medical history, social science and institutional ethics. “There’s cultural evidence that we’ve been transfixed by bones for a very long time,” he writes. “Yes, a skull or skeleton is a momento mori of what awaits us, but that’s not all.” Indeed not.

It is a handsome book, the bi-colored dust jacket skeleton notwithstanding. Chapter openers display engravings of skeletons in curious poses borrowed from the 18th-century anatomical manual, “Osteographia or the Anatomy of Bones.”

In its organic chemistry element, Mr. Switek explains the cell structure of bones, and how and when bones grow. In the medical history chapters, he recalls Dickensian grave robbing, a practice driven to sate the insatiable appetite of doctors and medical schools for fresh cadavers, and many not so fresh.

Waxing weird, he notes that humans have used their fellows’ skulls for drinking vessels for 14,000 years. He also explains the practical reasons that various cultures developed ossuaries, cogently planned subterranean boneyards (some of them ornate and oddly beautiful), which save cemetery space in crowded locales.

The book touches on forensic bioarchaeology in reviewing the disinterment of Richard III, England’s last Plantagenet king whose skeleton, famously bent by scoliosis, was found under a parking lot near storied Bosworth Field, site of his last battle in 1483. Squeamish readers may want to skip the passage describing the likely manner of his death.

Mr. Switek’s core subject, bones, offers departure points for numerous tangents, including his disquisition on the current hot topic of the ownership of cultural remains, including bodies and bones. Heretofore, the doctrine “possession is nine-tenths the law” held sway.

In his energetic arguments to the contrary, he reviews the unpardonable practices of proto-anthropologists who seized skeletons (crania especially) wherever they found them and disposed of them willy-nilly. They burgled ancient graveyards and blood-fresh battlefields alike. Some scientists (and practitioners of such phony sciences as phrenology) displayed racist attitudes, witness they reburied caucasian bodies with reverence while bundling off non-white bodies to laboratories and museums.

Alas, he misses my favorite ghoul, the nominal father of physical anthropology Ales Hrdlicka, who created the collection of crania at what the book sloppily calls the “Smithsonian Institute.” Oral tradition at our National Museum of Natural History remembers this barbarous curator as an institutional tyrant who — in the name of science — required new staffers to formally bequeath their skulls to his collection as a condition of employment. What a surprise then, that Hrdlicka’s own death revealed that he willed that his body (with cranium) be cremated and the ashes mingled with those of his first wife.

Mr. Switek reviews the ongoing evolution of culturally sensitive policies governing the ownership and disposition of cultural materials. The latter include skeletons, body parts and physical objects whether a mask or totem, which an anthropologist might consider a talisman, an art historian would call a sculpture, and a Native American must respect as an ancestor.

Regarding the treatment of ancient graves, “This is where politics and history run headlong into tensions between science and culture, where empirical knowledge and cultural belief are weighed against each other and science is often given more heft.” Mr. Switek writes, “Rather than hide from this, anthropology has a duty to honestly assess its own past and the impact of what’s been done in the name of science, and why many people have good historical reason to not immediately trust that science has their best interests at heart. There is no instantaneous fix for this, and building trust from such a terrible history is no small challenge.”

An awkward question “lurks in every anthropological collection and archaeological study of human remains, [i.e. skeletons and skulls]: Who are the rightful keepers of the dead? Bone, after all, is the most lasting part of ourselves, able to speak to succeeding generations even after our voices have gone silent.”

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Chevy Chase, Md., has written numerous books, including “The National Museum of Natural History.”

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