A skeleton is a human being in its most naked form. A life stripped down to its essence. As the foundation of our bodies—indeed, of our very being—skeletons provoke equal measures of fascination and terror.
As an archaeologist excavating burials, I’ve felt connected to another person—separated by centuries of time—by touching their remains. I’ve observed how exhibits of Egyptian mummies and plastinated bodies inspire wonder for others. But as a museum curator, I’ve also learned that for many cultures, human remains are not organic material to be exploited for science, but rather the sacred remnants of ancestors to be revered.
Our physical bodies will exist as motionless bones far longer than as animate flesh. And human skeletons evoke powerful reactions, from reverence to fear, when they’re encountered. Those features imbue skeletons with a surprising power. Through them, people can live on through their earthly remains.
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Bones are an ancient obsession. Archaeologists recently revealed an 11,000-year-old “skull cult” in Turkey. Humanity’s first farmers also ritually de-fleshed, carved, and displayed human crania. For a thousand years, Japanese folklore has warned of the gashadokuro, a colossal starving skeleton who feasts on the living in the dark of night. The Chimbu tribe of Papua New Guinea intimidates enemies by painting their entire bodies in frightening versions of skeletons, becoming an army of the dead. In medieval Europe, the skeleton was commonly portrayed as a memento mori—a reminder of the inevitability of death.