Having never owned human remains before, Scragg unpacked the delivery with some trepidation. But when he held the skulls in his hands, he was struck by the beauty of the bared teeth and cavernous eyes, devoid of all life. He arranged the craniums, took some photos, and uploaded them on Instagram, adding hashtags: #skull #skeleton #curiosity.
Soon, Scragg was flooded with messages from people offering to buy the grisly remains. “I wasn’t really expecting much,” he says. “But obviously people want what they haven’t got.” Over the next few months, he sold a few of the items, and with the extra cash he bought more skulls and put them up for trade too.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
Today, Scragg’s Instagram account has over 33,000 devoted followers and is a central node in a small but active network of buyers and sellers who trade human remains on Instagram. Most buyers and sellers are avid collectors, who see accumulating rare bones as a legitimate, if eccentric, hobby.
But others view the rise of the human remains trade on Instagram as more than a sign of eccentricity, particularly when Instagrammers take real human skulls and give them faux tribal makeovers. Archeologists and historians keeping a close eye on the Instagram skull trade worry that it is an online microcosm of the West’s dark colonial past, and at a moment in history when museums are beginning to take decolonization and repatriation of stolen remains seriously, some wonder whether the online trade is reopening barely healed wounds.
Pre-2016, if you were in the market for human remains, eBay was your go-to website. But after the site banned the sale of human body parts (with the exception of scalp hair) in 2016, Instagram has taken over.
Selling remains on the photo-sharing network works much like other informal commerce on the platform. A user will post an image of, say, a skull and offer a price in the comment section below. Interested users will then reach out via direct message, and if a price is agreed upon, payment is made directly, and the goods packaged and shipped.
Archeologists Damien Huffer and Shawn Graham have been surveying the scale of this shadowy market since 2013, searching and analyzing several thousand posts advertising human remains on the platform. Their findings reveal a rapidly growing trade: In 2013, sales totaled only $5,200 (£4,190), but by 2016, that number had risen to $57,000 (£46,000). And Huffer says that the true total is likely to be much higher. Many sellers don’t advertise prices for their wares—preferring to leave the messy business of negotiating to direct messages—but through his own sleuthing, Huffer has found some items selling for upwards of $19,800 (£16,000).
Unlike other illicit markets on Instagram—exotic animals, looted antiquities, weapons—there is nothing explicitly illegal about trading human remains on the platform. In the UK, human bones fall under the “no property rule” in common law, which essentially means that they belong to whoever happens to be in possession of them, with no paperwork required to prove their provenance. And while displaying human remains publicly requires a license from the Human Tissues Authority, this is not the case for posting photos of them online.
Other jurisdictions have a less laissez faire approach to the bone trade, however. In the United States, Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee all have regulations restricting the sale and possession of human remains. But for the most part, Huffer says, laws are ambiguous and unenforced. (Scragg told me that as long as he labels his deliveries correctly, he is not bothered by UK customs authorities.)
Traders on Instagram have taken advantage of this apparent gap in the law to establish an international trade route, with major nodes in the UK, US, Canada, and Europe. According to a Facebook spokesperson, this bone trade contravenes platform policy—which bans the “trafficking or sale of non-generative human organs on Instagram, including bones”—and can lead to account suspension. Some accounts in fact have been removed because of such violations, the spokesperson said.
But Huffer maintains that this policy is not adequately enforced. “While the human remains market existed before Instagram, it has enabled so many more people to connect with each other and indulge in this obsession,” he said. “It has transformed what was a fringe practice into a viable, global free for all.”
While trading bones online might be legal, or at least legally ambiguous, there is still a degree of secrecy within the Insta-skull community. When I started following and reaching out to a number of accounts that were clearly advertising human remains, they denied it flatly, referring to themselves as “art collectors” or purveyors of “cultural history.” Many promptly blocked me or asked me not to contact them anymore.
Debbie Reynders, a Belgian collector and trader who runs an Instagram account of almost 4,000 followers with her husband, told me that this reticence arises from fear of being stigmatized publicly as strange or morbid. “People outside of the community often see what we do as maybe a little disturbing,” she said. “But the people who collect and trade are really genuine people, open and lovely. But a bit guarded. Especially to journalists.”
Like Scragg, Reynders and her husband started collecting after buying their first skull on a whim online. She told me that when it arrived in the mail there was an initial “shock factor,” but this slowly transformed into fascination and, eventually, obsession. Now they both work part-time and spend their remaining hours trading and maintaining their growing collection. “It’s not about the money,” she says. “We just sell skulls so we can buy more skulls. I think for the real collectors it’s always that way.”
Instagram’s network not only allows collectors to find new buyers and sellers, but also to curate and market their wares in a visually compelling way, much like a fashion label or jewelry designer might. No one does this better than Scragg, who now spends all of his time trading online as well as managing his oddities shop-cum-museum in Essex.
His aesthetic is a cross between Victorian Gothic and colonial explorer, as if Edgar Allan Poe wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones. Scroll through his feed and you’ll see mummified cats laid out on red velvet, Victorian dolls with staring glass eyes, pickled organs, and numerous ancient-looking craniums. Occasionally, Scragg himself features in a post—black eye liner, druid-like face tattoos, a naval-length ginger beard that coalesces into a single dreadlock—a true influencer in the world of the macabre.
Reynders also takes a lot of pride in the aesthetics of her artifacts. Chatting over Skype, she took me on a virtual tour of her collection, laid out meticulously inside a glass cabinet, a throwback to the 16th century, when the nobility would curate “cabinets of curiosity,” bric-a-brac collections of exotic items gathered from around the globe, often with a human skull as the centerpiece.
There was a female pelvis, a number of medical skulls, gynecological instruments, tribal decorations, and then, right at the end, three tiny, alien-looking skeletons all in a row. “They are fetuses,” Reynders explained. “A still-born, a 13-week-old, and a six-month-old.”
When I asked Reynders where she got these from, she said she sourced most of her collection from other trusted collectors in the community. She says that what matters most to her and other traders is that they are receiving real bone, rather than resin or plastic. Beyond that, though, the true provenance of the item—or the identity of the person to whom it once belonged—is almost impossible to prove.
Scragg agrees. “When most people see a human remain they feel like there should be some information about who they were and where they come from and everything else,” he explains. “But they have passed through so many hands over the years, that when you buy it there isn’t this strong provenance to know exactly where it comes from.”
Most of the remains that are traded, both online and offline, are likely decommissioned dentistry or medical specimens that have been circulating from collector to collector for decades. The usual provenance of these bones is India, which was the center of the human remains trade under British colonial rule in the 19th century, when medical institutions were known to pressure those who performed traditional cremations to ship bones to England, to be used by medical students.
According to Samuel Redman, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the bone trade and colonialism have long gone hand in hand, the evidence of which can be seen in the large collections of human remains in European and American museums. In his book, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, he proposes that a large portion of these bones were accumulated towards the end of the 19th century, when remains were seen not only as fascinating displays for the curious public, but valuable databases that could provide evidence for the emergent field of race science.
Scientists were given access to the collections and used them for such pseudoscientific pursuits as craniometry, which compared the skull sizes of human population groups in an attempt to “prove” racial hierarchies. For this reason, museums often put a premium on collecting the bones of indigenous people, who were seen as being closer to humanity’s evolutionary origins, or as Redman put it, “an authentic dot on a scientific plane.”
Many of these skulls were collected through illegal, often violent means. But according to Redman, this was justified through an assumed primacy of western science over the concerns of indigenous populations and their cultural practices. “Little thought was given to the fact that the way the bones were displayed and collected was profoundly against the traditions of many of the peoples from whom they were taken,” he says.
As in the 19th and early 20th centuries, buyers still pay a premium for so-called tribal remains on Instagram. Scragg, for instance, is currently selling a Dayak skull—heads that were taken as battle trophies by the native people of Borneo—for $930 (£750). Reynders has a skull in the style of the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea, who traditionally decorated the remains of ancestors with beeswax, red seeds, feathers, and ornamental jewelry.
The vast majority of these so-called tribal skulls on Instagram are what Huffer calls “osteologically real, but culturally fake,” meaning that they are real human bones, but modified by someone outside of the tribal culture as a replica. Reynders’ husband does some of these modifications, carving and decorating skulls not only in “tribal style” but also into mythical creatures like the squid-headed Cthulhu.
The couple does not try to sell these as authentic items, but as replicas inspired by the originals. Likewise, Reynders is under no apprehensions that her Asmat skull is real (she refers to it as a “tourist piece”). As is the case with much of Instagram, it seems that for the skull collectors, aesthetic trumps authenticity.
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But for the archeologists I spoke to, the act of displaying “tribal” remains on Instagram, regardless of whether they are authentic or not, is deeply problematic. Beyond the issue of appropriation, it shows a flagrant disregard for the sensitivities and customs of other cultures, many of which see the viewing or photographing of human remains as hugely offensive, if not profane.
For Huffer, the trade also shows an ignorance of the pain and suffering that the history of bone trading has caused. Indeed, when Westerners created an economic demand for tribal skulls after contact was made, there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings within some tribal communities in order to supply tourists and museums with these items.
Slowly, museums and countries have started to reckon with the grisly legacy of colonialism. In April 2019, Germany repatriated the remains of 53 Aboriginal Australians that had been on display in museums around the world. Although the British Museum has stubbornly refused most repatriation requests—including an appeal to return two skulls from Torres Strait Islanders—in 2006 it returned Maori bone fragments and bones to New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa museum. But according to Redman, the Instagram skull trade moves against this tide of increasing sensitivity from museums and galleries.
While he and the other archeologists I spoke to see the Instagram trade as a step in the wrong direction in this process of reconciliation and decolonization, both Scragg and Reynders told me that the Instagram community has its own set of ethical guidelines. In particular, the community is vigilant about any item they feel might have been looted or stolen. Someone once tried to sell Reynders gorilla hands, another time rare tribal skulls from Peru. “Both times I reported them,” she said. “If we get the feeling there is something iffy about it, we won’t go there.”
But Instagram’s skull collectors aren’t asking for the acceptance of the wider world. Scragg accepts that his livelihood and passion will be seen by many as morbid. For him, this stigma has its foundation in a modern attitude towards death that is shrouded in fear and secrecy, an unwillingness to stare our fate in the face.
“Have you ever held a human skull in your hands before?” he asked me. I hadn’t. “Well, what I recommend then is to get your hands on one and live with it for a while. Because you will soon realize quite how empty it is, but also how beautiful,” he says, before pausing. “And if you require one, I can hook you up.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK