Skulls found to be missing from a graveyard in Haffarðarey in West Iceland have turned up in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Some Icelanders are working to return them to Iceland. National Geographic reports.
These skulls were once part of Harvard University’s eugenics research and represented the Nordic Icelandic race. Now, researchers in Iceland and the U.S. are interested in reuniting these skulls with the rest of the bodies, currently located at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik.
The skulls in question were collected by anthropologist Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, who sought to study them as part of his eugenics research during a time when Iceland was considered a preserved example of the Nordic “golden age.” At the time, anthropologists such as Vilhjálmur were interested in the study of teeth. Because Icelanders led a fish-based diet with virtually no sugar, their teeth were of special interest, as they supposedly never formed cavities. Such research was, however, often fraught with racial theories that held Icelanders up as a forgotten time capsule of an original Germanic culture.
Icelandic academics, such as Gísli Pálsson, have also spoken up on the matter, stating that the remains ought to be repatriated.
Currently, US law obliges museum collections to repatriate the remains of indigenous groups within the US, but no such laws or treaties exist for repatriating the remains of foreign nationals.
Harpa Þórsdóttir, director of the National Museum, stated to National Geographic: “The National Museum of Iceland welcomes a conversation on the repatriation of the skeletal remains from Haffjarðarey. Ultimately, we want what is ethically best for the collection, while also considering the importance of their long-term preservation.”