Assembling Heads and Circulating Tales: The Doings and Undoings of Specimen 2032

Shannon A. Novak, Alanna L. Warner-Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


In April 1859, U.S. Army assistant surgeon Charles W. Brewer was dispatched to a remote mountain valley in the Utah Territory with orders to oversee the burial of 120 massacre victims. The scattered bones of overland immigrants who had been murdered by Mormon militiamen were gathered and interred in a series of mass graves. Though Brewer reported that his work was complete, he carried away from the site two skulls and “long tresses of dark and blonde hair of some of the tender victims” (Robinson 1884). One of the crania was recently identified in the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, historically known as the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. The analysis of “Specimen 2032” is presented here, along with the history of movements and encounters that brought it to this place. Rather than focus solely on the object’s authenticity or its linkages to the massacre site, we examine it within multiple assemblages—lively gatherings of materials, agents, and practices. In moving through these assemblages, the so-called specimen, we argue, is ontologically modified and transformed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-91
Number of pages21
JournalHistorical archaeology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Army Medical Museum
  • Mountain Meadows Massacre
  • assemblage theory
  • bioarchaeology
  • ontography
  • taphonomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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