The Mystery of the Burnley River Skull

Back in May, a Lancashire couple, Mick and Elaine Bell, found a human skull in a shallow section of the Burnley River while out walking their dogs.

They gave the skull to the police, who initially suspected that rain had washed it down from a nearby cemetery. But as forensic experts examined it, they grew puzzled. The features of the skull indicated the person had been a man who was either an Australian aboriginal or from a South Pacific Island. How had he ended up buried in Lancashire?

Elaine Bell with the skull

Carbon dating the skull produced no results. Initially the scientists thought this was because the bone was fossilized, but after subjecting it to chemical tests, they realized it was a fake, cast from a real skull.

The mystery deepened because it was a really good fake — much better than the kind that are typically commercially available — featuring details such as a fracture, incision marks indicating a pre-death operation, and signs of infection around the nose and mouth.

Currently, the police still don't know what substance the skull is made out of, nor how long it was in the river. Det. Supt. Charlie Haynes offers their best guess about what this thing is: "In the early 1800s skulls from Papau New Guinea were collectable - which ties in with the features of this skull. It may be a very accurate replica of a collectable."

The question is, why would someone have buried a very expensive fake skull? Perhaps it was buried back in the 19th Century by someone trying to perpetrate an archaeological hoax?

Links: Lancashire Telegraph, Burnley Express.

History Science

Posted on Wed Jul 11, 2012


Or, to flog it to some unwitting collector
Posted by Pete  on  Thu Jul 12, 2012  at  04:34 AM
A cast needs to be EXTREMELY good in order to fool both a competent physical anthropologist. Weird story, therefore.
It would surprise me if it really came to the stage of radiocarbon dating. More likely, the error flags went up when collagen couldn't be extracted from the samples (i.e. before they actually date the stuff).
Posted by LaMa  on  Thu Jul 12, 2012  at  07:35 AM
"both a competent physical anthropologist" ---> "both a competent physical anthropologist and a radiocarbon lab"
Posted by LaMa  on  Thu Jul 12, 2012  at  07:36 AM
Maybe someone was trying to fake a death, either their own or someone else's.
Posted by Vivian  on  Tue Jul 24, 2012  at  09:26 AM
My first thought was that it was perhaps buried by a descendant of the original owner who thought it was real and wanted to bury it as a sign of respect.
Posted by Andrea  on  Mon Aug 06, 2012  at  05:25 PM
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