Trinity College Dublin has agreed to work with the residents of Inishbofin, an island off Ireland’s west coast, to determine what should be done with 13 skulls stolen from the island by a British anthropologist in 1890.
The remains, which belonged to the island’s parishioners, were illicitly removed from the ruins of St Colman’s Monastery by anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon and Irish medical student Andrew Dixon, who smuggled them away by boat.
They are among 20 skulls donated by Haddon and Dixon to the university’s Old Anatomy Museum, with the other remains taken from the Aran Islands in Galway Bay and St Finian’s Bay in County Kerry.
According to a report in the Guardian, the specimens were taken as part of efforts to prove a long-discredited theory that the islanders were descended from a separate, indigenous race. At the time, craniology, the belief that skull measurements could be linked to intelligence, behaviour and race, was considered a credible science. Craniologists visited the island two years after the theft to conduct measurements on the island’s residents.
The board of Trinity College Dublin met this week to a consider a petition submitted by Inishbofin residents to return the crania to their community of origin.
In a statement following the meeting, the university said: “The board of Trinity College Dublin decided today to work with the people of Inisbofin and the statutory authorities to find a solution to the question of what to do with the crania that respects the wishes of the islanders.”
The decision is likely to have repercussions beyond the Irish Republic and comes as momentum builds to return human remains from collections. Last week, Ireland’s University College Cork agreed to repatriate mummified human remains and a sarcophagus to Egypt. Meanwhile the Naturalis Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands, has agreed to send 37 prehistoric skeletons back to Malaysia.
There have also been further developments in the return of Benin bronzes, with the University of Cambridge becoming the latest UK institution to confirm repatriation plans. The Charity Commission this week approved the transfer of 116 items to Nigeria's ownership. Some of the objects will remain in Cambridge “on extended loan” to teach schools and the public about west African history and civilisation.
And representatives from Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments are currently traveling to Germany to collect a first batch of around 1,130 Benin bronzes held in the country’s museums, which were transferred back to Nigerian ownership in June following a repatriation deal.
Nigeria is celebrating the arrival of the first bronzes with a major exhibition in early 2023.