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Penn State History Lesson: The Shrunken Heads In The Museum Of Anthropology

Penn State has had its fair share of brushes with the mysterious, from tales of ghosts in Old Botany to rumors of secret societies meeting in the dead of night. Until recently, one of Penn State’s most bizarre legends was hiding in plain sight — the shrunken heads in the Matson Museum of Anthropology. 

The Matson Museum is nestled behind the Lion Shrine on the west side of campus, almost out of view amid the trees.

Its nondescript outside appearance contrasts its interior — a stuffy showroom teeming with artifacts, many of which are thousands of years old. The Matson Museum can hardly afford to waste a single shelf, though. The collection once sprawled across two floors of the building before it was condensed into half of a floor. Consequently, less than 5% of the museum’s vast collection is on display.

Courtesy of Audrey Chambers

Its director, Dr. James Doyle, works in a cramped office down the hall. 

Doyle started at his position in October of 2021, succeeding Claire Milner, who had served as the Matson Museum’s director for almost two decades. He was previously an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. One issue Doyle faced after taking his new role was deciding what to do with Penn State’s infamous shrunken heads.

Shrunken heads, more formally referred to as tsantas, were crafted by the Shuar people of Ecuador in the 19th century. Tsanstas were created from the heads of the Shuar’s rivals in a grisly process that involved decapitating a victim and removing their skull, replacing the empty cavity with sand. The Shuar would then shrink the skin and rub black soot on it to keep the victim’s soul from taking vengeance. The finished tsantas, commonly mistaken for war trophies by outsiders, were instead venerated as symbols of supernatural power and used in religious ceremonies. 

Two tsantsas were donated to Penn State’s School of Mineral Industries in the 1930s by Russell E. Stamm. Stamm worked for the Tropical Oil Company, a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, and was the father of mining engineering student Roy P. Stamm, who graduated in 1938. Although the buying and selling of tsantsas had already been made illegal, a 1935 issue of The Daily Collegian reported that Stamm acquired the heads after they were smuggled into Colombia.

The tsantsas were relocated to Penn State’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum in the Steidle Building, where they became a popular exhibit. They were on display until the 2000s, when they were transferred to their current location. 

Doyle is “taking the pulse of the field” when it comes to displaying the tsantas and has removed them from the display in the meantime. 

“My hope is that we find more information about the origins of these two individuals and determine a way forward,” he said. “If they are indeed tsantas from the Shuar peoples, then we could start talking to our colleagues in the Ecuadorian Embassy.”

The Matson Museum has since begun working with the International Sustainable Development Projects Clinic at Penn State’s law school to evaluate the two heads, both legally and historically. Doyle is considering repatriating the tsantas, meaning they would be returned to their country of origin. 

Doyle has also spoken to researchers from Mercer University, who had a shrunken head in their geology collection before it was repatriated to Ecuador. 

Even so, Doyle is not completely sure that the tsantas are even authentic, adding a wrinkle to an already tangled issue. The heads were donated during a time when fake artifacts were rampant, particularly in less developed areas.

“There’s kind of this morbid trade in human remains that was going on in the early 20th century, that this category of heads was embroiled in,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to, out of respect for whether they are ancestral people from this area of Ecuador or not, research everything before we decide a way forward.” 

The United States has taken steps to combat the artifact black market since the 1930s, enacting a federal law in 1990 known as NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American artifacts to their descendants. For international cases, such as the tsantas, the legal situation is more complicated. Doyle mentioned the museum’s “longstanding commitment” to returning Native American cultural items as factoring into his decision making.

For now, the museum replaced the display case with an exhibit about the indigenous history of Pennsylvania, featuring stone tools and pottery from Penn State’s excavations near Milesburg. 

Adam Babetski | Onward State

At the moment, Doyle is focused on planning the Matson Museum’s relocation to the Susan Welch Liberal Arts Building, situated on the more eye-catching Pattee Mall. While he is dealing with the strenuous undertaking of transporting artifacts across campus, he nonetheless views the tsantas as a “priority.” 

“It’s one of those things that takes a lot of different collaborations, and we’re just starting that process,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful learning opportunity.”

Time will tell whether the tsantsas are the real deal and will be returning home, or if they were just a historical ruse all along.

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About the Author

Adam Babetski

Adam Babetski is a senior double majoring in communications and medieval history. He's from the only part of Virginia without tractors and southern accents. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBabetski for hot takes about sports. For serious inquiries, email [email protected]

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