The Top 10: Skulls

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Indiana Jones looms over Harrison Ford at the Japanese premiere of ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ in 2008 (AFP via Getty Images)
Indiana Jones looms over Harrison Ford at the Japanese premiere of ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ in 2008 (AFP via Getty Images)

Thanks to Richard Morris, who suggested I compile a Top 10 jesters and nominated Yorick, prompting David Herdson to suggest this list instead.

1. André Tchaikowsky’s. The Polish pianist donated his skull when he died in 1982 to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in Hamlet, but it took until 2008 for it to be used by David Tennant, as previous casts had been too squeamish. Nominated by Colin Jamieson and Joe Twyman.

2. Piltdown Man. Fake skull of the “missing link” composed of parts of an orangutan and a modern human, “discovered” in 1912 and only definitively debunked in 1953. Thanks to Adam Behr.

3. For the Love of God, Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted sculpture, 2007. Another from Adam Behr.

4. Oliver Cromwell’s. It was displayed on a spike outside parliament throughout Charles II’s reign; was hidden in a chimney by a guard who found it after a storm in 1685; later shown in a museum of curiosities; before being authenticated and buried in 1960. Nominated by Anthony Wells.

5. Cunimund’s. The king of the Gepids (in modern Serbia), defeated by Alboin of the Lombards in 567 AD; Alboin married Cunimund’s daughter Rosamund and asked her to “drink with her father”, forcing her to drink out of her father’s skull. She later got her own back, having Alboin murdered in his sleep. Thanks to Philip Redhair.

6. The Skull and Bones Club at Yale University. Secretive fraternity whose members included George HW Bush and George W Bush. It has been reported to have in its possession the skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo (not the alpaca) and Pancho Villa. The name is a reference to the skull and crossbones symbol, originally used on medieval gravestones before being appropriated by pirates (the Jolly Roger) and now the universal symbol for poison. Thanks to Conor Downey and Steven Fogel.

7. The Crystal Skull in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of. Absolute hokum, loosely inspired by stories of skulls alleged to be Aztec or Mayan but actually made in Germany in the 19th century. Thanks to Conor Downey and Stewart Slater.

8. “The Eggshell Skull” rule in law: that if you’ve injured someone you can’t limit your liability by claiming that you were unaware of an existing fragility of your victim, such as a thin skull. Nominated by Steven Fogel.

9. The skull in The Ambassadors, painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, a reminder of mortality which has to be viewed from an angle to be seen – a technique called anamorphosis. Nominated by Stewart Slater.

10. Phineas Gage’s. US railway worker who survived an accident in which an iron rod went through his head in 1848, changing his personality and advancing the sum of medical knowledge about mind and brain. Thanks to Alan Robertson.

As no one nominated a one-person rowing boat, the “there’s always one” slot remains vacant this week.

Next week: Book titles that are homages to previous books, after Denis MacShane published Must Labour Always Lose?, a reference to Must Labour Lose?, by Mark Abrams and Richard Rose in 1960.

Coming soon: Musical cliches in TV and film, such as “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for any US-made scene involving an English stately home.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to top10@independent.co.uk

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