Sister Autumn

When I worked with Billy Jamieson as his top researcher for nearly eight years, my job entailed finding and researching items for his collection. It was through him I learned about the scientific process of determining whether leather is human skin or animal skin, as well as the old-school way of looking at, feeling and smelling the leather.

Billy was the exuberant Canadian collector who bought the Niagara Falls Museum, which housed Egyptian mummies, one of which was later believed to be Ramses I.

You can read about the discovery of Ramses I here.

You can watch a short video of Billy and his amazing collection here.

The Egyptian mummy in the case in the video was originally mine. I had put an ad on my website looking for mummies, shrunken heads, tanned human skin, etc and a man near Seattle called up to say he had saved two mummies from the dump. A school had decommissioned the mummies and the janitor didn’t want to see them thrown out, so he ended up taking them home.

For years the mummies took up residence in his basement until his wife told him to get rid of them (it’s always the wife) so he called me. I told Billy about them, he wanted them, so we kept them in our living room for a few weeks, and then my husband drove the two Egyptian mummies in their original display cases 2,713 miles from Oregon to Toronto, Canada. They were expecting my husband and the two mummies at the border crossing, and the van turned into a Single-O attraction because all the border guards were quite giddy to have a peek inside the van to see the Egyptian mummies!

While working with Billy, I learned about the different types of testing used on tanned, mummified or sun-dried leather in order to determine if it was in fact human skin or not. Billy’s collection consisted of preserved human remains such as mummies, tribal skulls, human shrunken heads, human shrunken bodies, and another amazing discovery, a medieval body which turned out to be the first recorded autopsy, along with taxidermy and many other relics.

The test that Billy used to determine if his leather items were of human origin or not was extremely expensive - thousands of dollars a pop. The test was not only complicated but the final results could take weeks if not months to accomplish. And not just anyone could waltz in and ask for one of these tests. Billy knew people in the academic and medical community and it was these moments when he would call in a favor.

I’d read about this one test that is being used today that uses a proteomic method called peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), it identifies the protein collagen and matches the binding material to its mammalian source.

In a recent book review, I read how one scientist in the field of tanned human skin did not have a favorable opinion about the PMF test and would be hesitant to use as a final analysis.

I have not had any of my tanned human skin items tested, mostly because the test that Billy used is so expensive, and on top of that, I don’t have those kinds of connections, nor do I have that kind of cash lying around. Collectors rely upon provenance that sometimes involves previous owners, paperwork, and a mutual trust that the piece purchased is what the seller claims it to be.

But isn’t that true with all the major Museums? Is that shrunken head in the Museum a real Tsantsa head or just a counterfeit human head that was removed from an unclaimed body that came from the morgue and was being passed off as a Tsantsa. The Egyptian Mummies and the Shrunken Heads are every museum’s biggest draw.

In regards to human remains, I am an atheist and science is my religion. I believe that once a person dies, all that remains is soon-to-be rotting meat and bones. Nothing else. Anything beyond that is Religious Dogma.

My science-religion also includes preserved human bodies that are either on public display or held in private collections as teaching tools. This includes medical specimens, articulated skeletons, grinning skulls and loose long bones, Fetal Skulls, Egyptian mummies, bejeweled bodies of Catholic Saints and their sacred body parts, human war trophies and execution relics. I like to call it extreme crafting. It is a way to satiate one’s morbid curiosity under the guise of education, when the reality of it is, many of us just want to look at dead human bodies.

Music: Cry (feat. Grimes) by Ashnikko


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