Monday, September 19, 2011

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On Licking a Human Skull

Hamlet: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once

~ William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

I tell you this today — a slight foray into topics broader than food and drink — in order to tell you something tomorrow without miring us in macabre details [edit: it's been told].

Hamlet, Yorick, et al by W.G. Simmonds
While in graduate school, I studied physical anthropology. At the age of 25, I knew more about human osteology — the names of bones, their shapes, their characteristic bumps and markers — than did any of my friends who had chosen a career in medicine. Recent or ancient, intact, disarticulated, or fragmented beyond laymen’s recognition, I learned to identify and analyze human remains.

Of course, there was any number of widely taught techniques for doing so. One quick-and-dirty field trick, though, sticks with me. This isn't something you'd want to do with recent remains, but for older bones, it was a method of revealing which fragments of parietal bones are which. The parietals are two squarish bones forming the arched dome of your skull. Whole, the right and left sides are determined easily at a glace. They fit together like the fingers of two clasped hands. But if the head has been broken or shattered, right from left is not always so obvious.

Unless you lick the skull.

You heard me: lick it.

Pronounced grooves run along the inside of each parietal bone, unmistakable channels that, in life, accommodate vessels on the exterior of the brain. These channels in the bone branch like a shrub; few and thick near the front and lower interior surface, but dividing into more, and more delicate, grooves toward the top and rear of the bone. Alternately, they resemble river tributaries in reverse.

Parietal Bone from Gray's Anatomy
When such fragments are dirty or dusty, those grooves can become indistinct. Some physical and forensic anthropologists — not all, by any means — borrow a move from the archaeology crowd and dab parietal pieces on their moist tongues to reveal obscured details. An archaeologist might do this with, say, a dusty pottery shard to determine its composition.

Now, to be sure, anthropologists don’t slather head bones with drool, working every nook and cranny clean. These are not reliquary fetishists, but you can understand why they don’t put this one in the brochure. The dab of moisture dries quickly, but before it does, the grooves’ size and direction becomes apparent. Couple those details with the curve of the piece and the correct placement becomes apparent.

Did I lick the inside of a man’s skull? Bet your sphenoid I did. Like everyone else who got an A.

Why is this on my mind? Check back tomorrow. It comes round to food again.

[edit 9/20/11: that post is up here]

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1 comment:

Tony Harion said...

Well the other post is out. But before I get to read it, i´m gonna read this one again, just to make sure I got it straight…