Tibetan Buddhists use human remains to create ritual artifacts

by Kathleen Terris

Located in the heart of the Asian continent between China and India, Tibet is a region with a complicated political history that has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951. Religion, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, is extremely important to everyday Tibetan life and is derived from the ancient Tibetan religion Bön and Sanskrit Buddhism from Northern India. Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the west due to Tibetan emigration.

Rituals and ritual artifacts are important in Tibetan Buddhism, with the artifacts believed to hold tantric powers that determine how successful the ritual will be. Several of these ritual artifacts are made using human bone; these artifacts include the damaru, the kangling, and the kapala. The damaru is a two-headed, hand-held drum that is made from two skulls, a male and a female, which represent the male and female elements of life. These elements are further represented through the male and female mantras that are inscribed on the inside of the corresponding skullcap. This ritual instrument is held in the right hand and is often paired with a bell (ghanta) to create a musical offering to the deities at the center of the ritual.

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A traditional Tibetan damaru. Beasley-Hwang collection.

The kangling is a trumpet traditionally made from a human femur (kangling literally translates to “bone flute”).  Said to have a haunting sound, the kangling is typically used in rituals to summon spirits in order to help relieve their worldly sufferings.

Monk with Damaru Thighbone

A damaru and kangling used together in ritual.

A kapala, or skull cup, is used to hold offerings of herbs and flowers that are mixed with various liquids; this mixture is symbolic of aspects of the body and mind.  The skull cup is supported by a triangular base with a skull decorating each corner; these skulls represent the three vices (greed, hate, and ignorance).  The kapala is topped off with a crown-shaped lid that represents the enlightened body.

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An intricately decorated kangling. Beasley-Hwang Collection.

These instruments are used in chöd ritual, a practice that combines Buddhist meditation and an ancient shamanic ritual native to Tibet and is primarily found in Tibetan Buddhism and Bön. The goal of this practice is to get rid of the Ego, which starts with disconnecting from the body and material objects.

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A Tibetan kapala, complete with separate triangular base and crown-shaped lid. Beasley-Hwang collection.

While these artifacts are traditionally made from human bone, they may also be made from wood. When made from bone, the selection is very important to how much power the artifact has and the success of the rituals it is used in; it is believed that the karmic force of the deceased remains in these skeletal artifacts and is transferred to those who use them in ritual. For example, the bones of an individual who died violently are believed to hold the greatest power while those of someone who died a peaceful death have almost no power; the bones of a respected teacher are also thought to be powerful in ritual use. While it can seem almost morbid to use skeletal remains as ritual objects, these are often seen as the most powerful cultural objects. This is evident in the amount of decoration and symbolism included in the artifacts described here.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Terris worked Houston Museum of Natural Science Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout and recently joined the collections department as a part-time member.

If you’re looking for more bones, visit the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. #ChillsAtHMNS

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The Art of the Skull: Museum Store highlights the beauty of the human skeleton

One of the most photographed pieces in the museum’s collections is the “jaw dropping” crystal quartz skull in the exhibit Gemstone Carvings: Masterworks by Harold Van Pelt.  The hollow, life-sized skull with articulated jaw, was carved from a single block of rare izoklakeite quartz.


Harold van Pelt’s quartz skull.

Our fascination with human skulls spans cultures and eras. From the Neolithic plaster-covered skulls of Jericho, the ornate Buddhist kapala skull cups, European vanitas morality paintings, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos festivals, and all the way up to modern works of art from people like Damien Hirst, the skull represents our views about mortality and humanity.


Vanitas Still Life. 1648, Jan Jansz. Treck.


Click photo to open ShopHMNS Instagram.

The European Enlightenment period led to an interest in natural history, anatomy, and archaeology, and gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosities often included a collection of skulls, both animal and human. While these early wunderkammer were more about collecting the unusual and “wonderful” rather than scholarly study, they were the precursor to our modern natural history museums.


Click photo to see product in the Museum Store.


Click photo to open ShopHMNS Instagram.

Here in the Museum Store, we’re still fascinated with collecting skull art and imagery. One of our favorite items is the intricately beaded skull necklaces from local artist team Brassthread. Inspired by Huichol beadwork and Dia de los Muertos folk art, the tiny handmade skull is painstakingly set with miniscule beads in an intricate pattern.


While not an original Van Pelt carving, this labradorite skull was hand carved in Madagascar from a solid block of labradorite, and flashes light and rich colors from different angles.



Reminiscent of momento mori and Victorian headstone carvings, f. is for frank’s cast pewter skull ring is the work of Texas sculptors Shoshannah Frank and Casey Melton.


Our newest artist is Ashley Lyons of New Orlean’s Porter Lyons. Her Voodoo collection pays homage to the history and customs behind the religion that was so much a part of New Orleans Creole culture. Her Baron Samedi earrings reference the loa who is the spirit of both death and resurrection.


There is beauty and art in science, as shown by x-ray artist Hugh Turvey. Turvey uses industrial x-rays to photograph not just skeletons, but also the “bones” of everyday objects. Designer Michael Revil Madjus also captures the beauty of the human skull with his x-ray pillow.


We love to see the natural world transformed into art, so even if skulls and skeletons aren’t your thing, we have intriguing items from a wide range of artists and designers, both in store and online at museumstore.hmns.org. And 100% of store proceeds benefits the museum and its educational programming. #ChillsAtHMNS

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Visit Savage Garden for a glimpse at some of nature’s nastiest plants

In case you thought plants were not much more alive than a rock, think again! As David Attenborough pointed out in his wonderful series, The Private Life of Plants, plants have many behaviors as complex and interesting as those of animals. The problem is, plants move much more slowly, making their behaviors and reactions harder for us to appreciate.

During the month of October, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is celebrating Halloween with Savage Garden, bringing attention to some interesting things plants do. If you visit during that time, be sure to check out the map at the entrance and look for the purple signs scattered throughout the main floor of the rainforest.


You’ll be introduced to plants much older than the dinosaurs (Ancient Plants),


plants that protect themselves with spines, thorns, and prickles (Spiky Plants),


plants that defend themselves chemically (Delicious, or Deadly?), plants that heal us (Medicinal Plants), plants that use ants as bodyguards (Ant Plants),


plants that eat insects (Carnivorous Plants),

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plants that come back from the dead (Resurrection Plants),


plants with really putrid flowers (Stinky Plants),


and last but not least, a Miracle Berry plant (False Sugar). 

This is only a small slice of the interesting things plants can do. They have all sorts of adaptations to make more of themselves (via pollination and seed dispersal) and to move from one place to another (seed dispersal and crawling vines, etc.). Some of them can travel through time, with seeds that remain dormant for dozens or even hundreds of years. The protective chemicals of some toxic plants don’t necessarily have to be eaten, either – think about poison ivy. Urushiol (the chemical that causes the extremely uncomfortable blisters in some of us) is a powerful deterrant to humans. Yet birds gobble poison ivy berries with no ill effect!

Even stranger than the above behaviors is the discovery of inter-plant communication. Ecologists have known for a while that plants can “tell” other nearby plants of the same species that they are being attacked by insects via airborne chemicals, and the “listening” plants can then beef up their own chemical defenses. But according to recent studies, plants have other means of communication, some using underground networks of mycorrhizal (fungal) connections that network plants of many different species, and others apparently even making sounds! Check out this interesting article on “Plant Talk” by Dan Cossins in The Scientist

We don’t have any of these “talking” plants (that we know of) in the Butterfly Center, but please visit us in October to learn more about some of the other totally wicked things plants do in Savage Garden! #ChillsAtHMNS

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Is Nefertiti still buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb? Archaeologists examine a new theory

Tutankhamun has been in the news again, following online publication of Nicholas Reeves’s article that suggests that Tut’s tomb may still be keeping a very big secret: the burial of the king who ruled before him, hidden behind the painted walls of Tut’s burial chamber. To cap it all, this mysterious predecessor, Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare, was probably Tut’s mother-in-law Nefertiti, who changed sex and ruled as king after the death of her husband (and Tut’s father) Akhenaten, in about 1330 BC. No wonder Tut’s life was turned into a miniseries earlier this summer…

Burial chamber

Burial Chamber. North wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings.

Nicholas Reeves knows more about Tutankhamun and his family than almost anyone, so his theory has been widely discussed. His book The Complete Tutankhamun, is an unsurpassed guide to the tomb, and Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet takes a wide-ranging look at the the changes in religion and society that Akhenaten tried to impose as king.

Dr. Reeves’s theory builds on his extensive study of the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun’s Egypt, but at its heart are two simple practical observations. Looking at the high-resolution scans of Tut’s burial chamber made by Factum Arte, he noticed vertical and horizontal disturbances in the surface of the north and west walls of the burial chamber. Second, the paintings on the long, northern wall look different from those on the other walls and have been carried out using a different technique.

Dr. Reeves’s suggestion is essentially that the disturbances correspond to the doorways of two chambers that had been sealed off and painted over to conceal them before Tut’s burial. The chamber behind the west wall may have been intended for more of Tut’s belongings, while the chamber behind the north wall could contain the burial of Tut’s predecessor, Smenkhkare/Nefertiti, for whom the tomb was originally made. The paintings on the north wall were executed just after Nefertiti’s burial in order to conceal her mummy and tomb equipment from robbers, a common practice in royal tombs.

When Tut died, nine years after Nefertiti, his own tomb was nowhere near finished. In order to bury him quickly, his burial party used the rooms in front of Nefertiti’s sealed burial chamber. This room then became Tut’s burial chamber, and the three still unpainted walls were painted with scenes of Tut’s funeral and afterlife. The already painted north wall received a few tweaks to transform it from a depiction of Nefertiti’s funeral to Tut’s.

There’s a simple and uncontroversial way to test whether there’s anything behind Dr. Reeves’s theory: ground penetrating radar. Firing this at the walls in question should show what, if anything, is behind them. It sounds as though the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities has given permission. Watch this space!

But first, we should watch the walls. I know little about how one evaluates wall surfaces, so can’t say whether the horizontal and vertical disturbances really are consistent with a couple of sealed doorways. However, I’ve worked on artistic styles – the way representations change over time and circumstance – and I am not convinced by Dr. Reeves’s theory that the north wall of the burial chamber was painted for Nefertiti, nine years before Tut’s burial and the rest of the paintings.

The north wall has three groups of figures. From left to right you can see Osiris, god of the dead, embraced by Tut and his ka (spirit); the sky goddess Nut offering water to Tut; and Aye, Tut’s successor king, wearing a leopard-skin outfit as he performs the opening of the mouth ritual on Tut’s wrapped mummy.

Dr. Reeves argues that images of Nefertiti were painted where we now see Tut, and Tut was painted where we now see his successor Aye. When Tut died, the names were changed to change the identities and the background painted yellow to make the north wall look like the other walls. The figures themselves were not touched, so Tut actually looks like Nefertiti and Aye actually looks like Tut. All clear?

The trouble is that the Tuts don’t look like Nefertitis to me, and Aye doesn’t look much like Tut. Instead, Tut looks like Tut and Aye looks like Aye, as we have always assumed. What is going on?

Tomb Tut head

Tut or Nefertiti? Detail from the north wall of the burial chamber of Tutanhamun.

Dr Reeves says that the ‘oromental groove’ – the fold at the corner of Tut’s/Nefertiti’s mouth – is “a defining feature” of Nefertiti’s representations. I disagree. You see them on plenty of representations of other people – male and female – at this time. Here you can see one of Tut’s sisters (and Nefertiti’s daughters) eating a duck and showing off her oromental groove.

Princess eating duck

Artist’s sketch of an Amarna princess, Cairo Museum. Courtesy www.welt.de.

It’s harder to tell in 3D sculpture, where you’re carving a subtle groove rather than drawing a single line, but this statue of Tut himself in the Oriental Institute Chicago, seems to have a little groove at the corner of his mouth.

Habu Tut

Colossal statue of Tutankhamun from Medinet Habu © The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

And this statue of a god with Tut’s features also has a noticeable fold.

Karnak Tut

Statue of Amun with the features of Tutankhamun, Temple of Karnak.

If Tut looks like Tut, and not Nefertiti, then does the painting of King Aye, Tut’s successor, really look like it started out as Tut? He certainly doesn’t look like the Tuts/Nefertitis next to him on the wall.

Tomb Aye head

Aye or Tut? Detail from the north wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun.

For me, again, the answer is no.  While most representations of people in Egypt are relatively generic – expressing, in part, closeness and obedience to the king – representations of Aye have a number of fairly individual traits. One is a longish, straightish nose which sticks out sharply from a slightly receding forehad. You can see that on the profile of “Aye” in Tut’s tomb as well as this example.


Nile deity with Aye’s face, from a statue of Aye as a king. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This slightly earlier image of Aye, from the tomb he made for himself before he was king, also shows a similar nose, and a pouch under his round chin.


Aye holding his official insignia. Worcester Art Museum.

Dr. Reeves describes “Aye’s” slight double chin as “a feature not present in any image currently recognizable as “Aye” and indicating that the original king painted must have been a chubby young Tutankhamun. Again, I would disagree with this. Just compare Aye’s chin above to the representation in Tut’s tomb. They are pretty similar.

The final object that I think speaks against this hypothesis is a plaster cast of a face taken from a statue of an old man with a heavily wrinkled forehead.

Aye Berlin

Head of an elderly man from Tell el Amarna. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

This was discovered in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose at Akhenaten’s capital, alongside the well known Bust of Nefertiti. The head has no inscription but has often been identified as Aye. I’d agree with this – just compare the noses – but either way, look at his magnificent double chin. At this period, then, double chins aren’t necessarily a sign of youth, but also of age. So this is no young Tut burying Nefertiti, but as the inscriptions themselves say, old Aye burying Tut.

You can see that I’m skeptical of Dr. Reeves’s interpretation of the wall paintings. Does this mean that there’s nothing behind the wall(s)? Not necessarily. The wall paintings form only one part of his hypothesis, and I don’t know enough about structural mechanics and architecture to be able to decode or comment on the surface features he has identified as plastered-up doorways. So I’ll be very interested to see what the results of the ground-penetrating radar examination reveal, and I’ll be delighted if my skepticism is shown to be mistaken. Using radar is only the start of what could be a long process, though. Any anomalies revealed may be something very different from chambers full of gorgeous gold. For example, the floor of the Valley of the Kings is shot through with cracks and fissures which show up on radar as anomalies; the soil of the valley has been churned over by two hundred years of excavators, and is also full of modern holes. There are plenty of unfinished niches in other tombs, and perhaps Tut’s architects just neatly plastered over two in the burial chamber. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of Tut and Nefertiti (sorry, but no Aye) in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. In addition to our head of a god with the features of Tut, and our replica of the Bust of Nefertiti, come and look at this amulet.

Chidd Amulet

Amulet of a crouching royal. Trustees of the Denys E. Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle.

It is tiny, about the size of a little fingernail, but the faience paste has been molded in some detail. You can make out a crouching figure clad in the long pleated kilt of the elite of the time of Akhenaten. The figure has one hand lifted to its mouth, sucking its index finger in the gesture used to identify children in Egypt. On its head is a skull-hugging cap with streamers hanging down the back, and a protective uraeus snake at the front. This is a royal person of the Amarna period reborn as a child, just as the sun rises again every day. The cap crown worn by the figure is worn by only one person: Nefertiti. Even if Nefertiti may not be awaiting rebirth in her hidden burial chamber, you can see her reborn every day in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

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