To the bone
Simon Winchester has written evocatively about the volcanic eruption that destroyed two-thirds of Krakatoa in the 19th century, the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the Oxford English Dictionary. Now, the subject is skulls, those bony inner faces without which our great minds would be impossible. In Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $29.95), Winchester curates and describes—with stunning photographs by Nick Mann—skulls collected by Dudley. Dudley seems nothing short of obsessed: In some cases, items in his collection were “harvested” and sold illegally, which led to his arrest in 2008. Despite that distasteful bit of knowledge, clearly conveyed upfront, the images are incredible, and Winchester’s accompanying essays are intriguing. Winchester points out details such as the sagittal crests on the skulls of predators, which makes possible their ferocity, yet are barely visible in a living animal.
It’s a reminder that we’re all similar under the skin—in a certain sense, a skull is a skull is a skull—except where differences illustrate how adaptation to our environment and evolution have changed us so thoroughly. But the book does take a dark detour when Winchester describes the rapid extinction of the dodo. “The dodo died before our very eyes,” he writes, “and its passing shames us still.”
Yet, there is its skull, a stark reminder that every gorgeous skull in this beautiful book once housed the brain, ears and eyes of something alive.