Saturday, February 02, 2013

Swedenborg's Skull in Swansea

Emanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish philosopher, scientist and Christian mystic of world repute. When he died in London in 1772 his corpse was put in a coffin at a Swedish Seaman’s Church in Shadwell. In 1790 this coffin was opened and it is thought that the skull was stolen and sold to a phrenological society. In its place was put a substitute. The tampered-with remains were transferred to Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden, in 1912, though the authenticity of the skull remained in doubt.

In 1958 the Swedish government agreed to open Swedenborg’s tomb so that it might be determined whether the enclosed skull was actually his. Scientific tests would be carried out. The investigation had been spurred by a claim that Swedenborg’s skull was actually in Swansea. A doctor there, Charlotte Brandt (nee Williams), claimed that her father had purchased it in a curiosity shop in London before WW1. It had been on display in a window. Attached helpfully to the skull was a note that had read: “The genuine skull of Swedenborg”. Aware of the story surrounding the human artefact Mr Williams bought it. When he died in 1957 the relic passed into the hands of his daughter.

After an extensive series of anatomical and chemical tests Swedish and British scientists concluded in 1961 that the skull in Uppsala did not belong to the rest of the skeleton. It was found to be of a younger age than the other bones. It also had traces of red hair even though Swedenborg was grey when he died. The Swansea skull was also thoroughly tested and proved to be the correct age. Furthermore it was known that during his lifetime Swedenborg had had an artificial tooth fitted. Such a tooth was found in the Swansea skull. In all probability, decided the boffins, the Swansea curio was “Swedenborg’s authentic cranium”.

When the news broke in Swansea Alfred Brandt, Charlotte’s husband, confirmed: “the skull does belong to us, but because it has been stolen in the past, it has been put in a place of complete safety with very good security arrangements.” Mr Brandt declined to say whether the skull would be returned to Sweden. In 1978 Swedenborg's skull turned up at Sotheby’s for auction. They did not divulge who the seller was. The Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm paid £1,500 for the relic. After the sale it was reunited with the rest of Swedenborg’s skeleton at Uppsala Cathedral.

*The incident, presumably, was the inspiration for Swansea poet Vernon Watkins' poem, Swedenborg's Skull.