The coolest museum in the world

museum, Pitt Rivers museum
Oxford is full of things to see such as medieval colleges and a lovely stretch of the Thames. Of course, you can find similar sights in other parts of England, although not in such a dense concentration that makes Oxford a perfect day trip from London. The one thing Oxford has that is truly unique is the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Pitt Rivers is laid out the way museums used to be: cabinets packed with artifacts and the walls and even the ceiling adorned with totem poles, statues, shields, spears, and canoes. Even when it opened in the 1880s it was a bit different from other museums, though. Instead of the displays being organized by region and period, they’re organized by use. For example, one case has fire-making equipment, ranging from simple wooden tools used by Australian Aborigines to matches from 19th century Europe to rather dangerous-looking lighters from a hundred years ago.

The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects collected by anthropologist Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. He was interested in how different cultures solved the same problems, such as lighting a fire, creating currency, or dealing with the dead. The collection has now grown to half a million artifacts from pretty much every culture and time period.

You name it, they have it. Egyptian mummy? Check. Inuit snow goggles? Check. Witch in a bottle? Check. Helmet made from a blowfish? Check. They even have a nice collection of shrunken heads.

%Gallery-131982%My five-year-old son loves this place. All kids love this place. In fact, it regularly gets chosen as Britain’s favorite museum. At the door they give you a flashlight so you can shine it into the dimly lit cases and pretend to be an explorer. Under the cases are drawers you can open to reveal more stuff.

It never ends. We’ve been in there dozens of times and each time we discover something new. A guard who has been working there for ten years told me the same thing. My kid has never gotten bored at the Pitt Rivers and often asks to go there when we’re in Oxford. Unlike in a lot of museums, you hear more kids complaining that they’re leaving than that they’re going in.

And if that doesn’t make it the coolest museum in the world, I don’t know what does.

Five places to see shrunken heads

srunken head, shrunken heads
Call me sick, but I’ve always been fascinated with shrunken heads.

“OK, you’re sick!”

Fine, but you’re still reading this, aren’t you?

Throughout history many cultures took heads as trophies, including the ancestors of many Gadling readers–the Celts. Celtic warriors used to cut the heads off of enemies and attach them to their chariots to look extra intimidating in battle. Japanese samurai, Maori warriors, and angry peasants in the French Revolution all took enemy heads as trophies.

Yet only one culture, the Jivaro of South America, actually shrank heads. Living in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and Peru, the Jivaro people developed the strange custom of cutting off an enemy’s head and shrinking it down to the size of a man’s fist. Called tsantsa, these shrunken heads served not only as proof of a warrior’s valor but also as a way to destroy the victim’s spirit, which might otherwise take revenge.

The process was gruesome but simple. Different sources give different recipes. This one comes from the well-researched site Head Hunter. Once you get a head, cut open the back so the skin and hair can be peeled from the skull. Throw the skull into a river as an offering to the anaconda. Sew the eyes shut, and close the mouth with wooden spikes or thorns. Boil the head for no more than two hours, then turn the skin inside out to clean off any nasty residue. Turn the skin right side out and sew up the slit you cut in the back.

%Gallery-126587%To shrink further, drop hot stones through the neck hole. Roll them around to ensure even heating and prevent any unsightly burn marks. The head will continue to shrink until the neck hole is too small to allow stones to enter. Now use hot sand to shrink the head even more. Press hot stones against the face to singe off any excess hair and shape the face to look nice, and use a hot machete to dry the lips, which will not have shrunk as much as the rest of the head.

Now put three chonta, or palm thorns, through the lips and tie them together with long, decorative string. Hang it over a fire to harden. You may also want to blacken the skin with charcoal to avoid the man’s spirit from seeing out. Pierce a hole through the top of the head so you can put a string through and wear your trophy around your neck.

The whole process takes about a week but with a bit of patience and practice, you’ll have a keepsake of your favorite battle and a surefire icebreaker at parties.

Shrunken heads fascinated early European explorers. They became a hot commodity and warfare increased in order to meet the demand. Often tribesmen found it easier and safer to make a fake head by using an animal head or making one out of leather. Some researchers estimate that up to 80% of all heads on display in museums are actually fake. This week a study was released of a DNA analysis of a shrunken head in an Israeli museum that turned out to be genuine. Researchers are hoping to test more heads to determine if they’re legit.

Some fake heads are actually real, in a sense. When a warrior killed an enemy but couldn’t get the head for whatever reason, or killed an enemy who was a blood relative and therefore wasn’t allowed to take the head, he could make a head from that of a sloth as a stand-in. Magically this was considered a real tsantsa.

Controversy over displaying human remains and the demands by some tribes to have them back has meant that many museums have removed their displays of shrunken heads. So where can you still see these little darlings?

Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. This branch of Ripley’s fun chain of museums has several shrunken heads on display.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle, Washington. Forget the Space Needle, this is the coolest attraction in Seattle. Once you’ve seen the real shrunken heads, head over the the gift shop to buy a cruelty-free replica.

Lightner Museum, Saint Augustine, Florida. This huge collection of nineteenth century bric-a-brac housed in an old mansion is an odd place to find a shrunken head collection, but people collected all sorts of things back then.

Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, England. Britain’s favorite museum has artifacts from all the world’s cultures, including a display case full of shrunken heads and trophy heads.

Madrid, Spain. Get a double dose of headhunting here at the Museo de América and the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

If you’d rather do some armchair traveling, check out the shrunken heads flickr group and Doc Bwana’s Shrunken Head Museum online.

Do you know of any other places still exhibiting shrunken heads? Tell us about it in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Joe Mabel. In my opinion these are fakes, mostly made from monkeys, but they do look cool]

Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, hararWhat makes an adventure traveler return to a place he’s been before? When so many other destinations beckon, why spend two months in a town you’ve already seen?

Because there’s so much more to see. Harar, in eastern Ethiopia between the lush central highlands and the Somali desert, can take a lifetime to understand. For a thousand years it’s been a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met Central African merchants, where scholars and poets have traded ideas, where a dozen languages are heard in the streets.

Harar’s influence spread wide in those early days. Harari coins have been found in India and China, and a couple of my Harari friends have subtly Chinese features.

The Harari have always mixed with other tribes. Some say if you live within the medieval walls of the Jugol, the old city, and follow Harari ways, that you are one of them. Hararis have their own language spoken only by the Jugol’s 20,000 residents, yet this language has created literature, poetry, and song for centuries. As Harar faces the new millennium, a dedicated group of artists and intellectuals are working to preserve and add to this heritage.

But this is no Oxford, no Western-style center of learning. Harar is different. The day starts at dawn with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Hararis are moderate Sunnis with a broad streak of Sufi mysticism. There are more than 90 mosques hidden in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Jugol, and more than 300 shrines to saints. Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

The morning is a busy time. Oromo farmers from the surrounding countryside fill the markets with their produce. Camels and donkeys jostle each other in the narrow streets. Kids go off to school. Offices and shops fill up. As the sun reaches its zenith and presses down on the city, people retreat to the cool interiors of their whitewashed houses with bundles of qat under their arm. Groups of friends chew this narcotic leaf during the hot hours of the day. As the buzz sets in, people relax and engage in long, animated conversations that after a time lapse into quiet reflection. One man will go off into a corner to write the lyrics to a song, while another will set to work on a Harari dictionary. Others will remain together, sharing stories about Harar. The afternoon and evening are spent in studious concentration, the main benefit of the so-called Leaves of Paradise.

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%Gallery-91809%Night falls and people still work. Ethiopia is a developing country and want is never far away, so everyone puts in long hours. As the final evening call to prayer echoes away, the Hararis set down to eat or chat in cafes over a cup of the region’s coffee (considered by many the best in the world) or retire to a shrine to perform all-night ceremonies of ecstatic chanting.

Then Harar’s other residents appear. Packs of hyenas gather at the edge of town, waiting for the humans to go to sleep so they can prowl the streets, eating the garbage or scraps left out for them. The Hararis consider the hyenas neighbors and they share an uneasy but close relationship. The Jugol walls even have low doorways to allow them to pass. Hyenas are magical beings, able to take the djinn, spirits, out of the city. Some say they’re djinn themselves, or blacksmiths turned into animal form. Sometimes as you walk home along a moonlit alley one will pass by, its bristly fur brushing against your leg.

I’m spending the next two months living here. This is a journey measured not in miles traveled but by people befriended and knowledge gained. I’ll sit with Harar’s great scholars and artists to learn about the heritage of this unique city, and I’ll meet the regular people–the Oromo farmers and Harari shopkeepers, the Tigrinya university students and Somali refugees. I’ll watch traditional blacksmiths working the way their ancestors did, and women weaving the colorful baskets that adorn every Harari home.

As a former archaeologist, there are some mysteries I want to explore. I’ll visit the ruins of Harla, said to be the predecessor to Harar, and investigate the prehistoric cave paintings at Kundudo, the region’s sacred mountain. I’ll descend into the Somali desert to visit Chinhahsan, where the 16th century conqueror Ahmad The Left-Handed is rumored to have had the capital of his vast but brief empire. Among the ruined castle and crumbling city walls I’ll look for the truth behind the legend.

I’ll also venture further afield, taking in the sights of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital. If I can assemble the right team, I’ll lead an expedition to Maqdala, a mountaintop fortress deep in the Ethiopian wilderness where the mad Emperor Tewodros defied the British Empire. I might even return to Somaliland.

There’s another reason I want to see Harar again–to catch a feeling that comes only once every few trips. Sometimes you’ll come to a spot where everything falls into place. The person you need to see appears just at the right time, the bit of information you’re searching for comes from an unexpected source, the mood is serene and the hospitality never ends. I’ve had that a few times before, like at Kumbh Mela, a giant Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 20 million people, but this feeling of everyone getting along despite their differences, everyone striving forward despite their lack of material resources, that’s a rare thing to experience.

So I’m going back.

This is the first of a series titled Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints. Join me as I discover more about this fascinating culture. A word of warning: the entire country is on dialup and there are frequent power cuts. I’ll try to post at least twice a week but please be patient! To be sure you don’t miss an installment, subscribe to my Gadling feed and in the meantime check out last year’s Ethiopia travel series.

For some views of my temporary home, see this video of a day in the life of Harar.

Native Americans in Oregon hunt buffalo for first time in a century

Native Americans, buffalo, bison, native americans, native american, Native American
In the old days, the Cayuse people used to rely on the buffalo hunt. Like many other Native American tribes, the buffalo gave them meat, hide, bone, grease, bone, and other materials. But once European settlers swept across the continent the buffalo all but disappeared. The Cayuse haven’t had a buffalo hunt in a hundred years.

All that has changed now that the Cayuse have won the right, initially given to them in a treaty dating back to 1855, to hunt buffalo on Federal land. It’s the latest in a string of victories for Native Americans in various states pushing for traditional hunting rights. In 2006, the Nez Perce and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai won the right to hunt on Federal land outside Yellowstone National Park, although they are forbidden from hunting within the park.

White settlers hunted the buffalo nearly to extinction by the early twentieth century. A couple of generations of careful management has helped the population rebound, and they’re now classified as “Near Threatened“, which is a lot better than “Endangered”.

Now the Cayuse and Shoshone-Bannock of Oregon have begun to hunt again. In addition to hiking, swimming, bird watching, logging, and a host of other uses, Federal land now has a new use, or an old one.

[Photo courtesy John Hill]

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Ancient statue of decapitated ballplayer discovered in Mexico

Mexico archaeology archeology decapitatedOne of the most enduring puzzles vexing archaeologists is the Mesoamerican ballgame. Played for 3,000 years by several cultures until the Spanish conquest, it had deep religious significance, although archaeologists are unsure just what that means.

Two teams faced off in a rectangular stone ball court, trying to knock a solid rubber ball using everything except their hands. At the end one team (presumably the losers) were sacrificed to the gods. Why? Nobody is really sure.

Now a new piece has been added to the puzzle. Archaeologists working at the site of the ancient settlement of El Teúl in the Zacatecas region of central Mexico have uncovered the statue of a headless ballplayer. El Teúl was inhabited for 1,800 years, longer than any other major site in the area.

The statue was found in the remains of an ancient ball court. Archaeologists theorize the statue acted as a pedestal on which to put real heads. Give me that old-time religion!

No good photo is available at this time, although you can see a shot of it lying where it was found in this article. The new find looks very different from the famous stele of a decapitated ballplayer shown here from the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa, Mexico.

If you want to try to figure out just what all the ballplaying and beheading was about, you’ll have your chance in 2012 when El Teúl opens to the public. Mexico is filled with ancient sites, and history buffs will soon have another important one to visit.

[Photo courtesy Maurice Marcellin via Wikimedia Commons]