chapter  12
16 Pages

‘Not Everything that Says Java is from Java’: Provenance and the Fate of Physical Anthropology Collections

This chapter demonstrates how provenance determined the fate of physical anthropology collections in the past and continues to do so today. Skulls and bones and, to a lesser extent, wet specimens in anatomical collections from the early modern period onwards derived an important part of their value from the documentation of their origin. With skulls and bones coming in from overseas, any conclusions drawn by physical anthropologists would become mere speculation without accurate accompanying information about their age and sex and, most importantly, their geographical background. Teunis Zaaijer, a nineteenth-century anatomist in Leiden, mentioned a revealing anecdote in this respect in his catalogue of 1893, heard from his predecessor Hidde Halbertsma. Halbertsma had seen a custodian write the word ‘Russian’ on the skull of a man who was certainly not from Russia but from Leiden, in order to drive up the purchase price. ‘Not everything that says Java is from Java’, Zaaijer warned his readers.1