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Anthropological collections

Anthropological collections of the Kunstkamera are among world’s largest. The museum’s depositories related to the department contain 761 collections (mostly skeletal) totaling nearly 380 000  items.

The earliest anatomical collections of MAE (late 1600s – early 1700s) come from the so-called Chamber of Naturalia in Peter the Great Kunstkamera. Their history begun when Peter I purchased in Holland the anatomical specimens made by the famous Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch and brought them to Russia. Later, Peter’s decree On Furnishing Born Freaks and Unusual Finds marked the beginning of so-called “Russian anatomical (teratological) collection”, which consisted of specimens prepared and acquired in Russia by Peter’s order and sometimes under his personal participation. The Russian anatomical collection, like that of F. Ruysch, reflects an important stage in the growth of anatomical knowledge and excites much interest on the part of science historians.

Anatomical collections consist of liquid (preserved in ethanol) and dry anatomical specimens from the early years of the Kunstkamera, and a number of other anatomical materials. The depositories contain 24 anatomical collections comprising 1,388 specimens. They also house F. Ruysch’s materials totaling 937 preparations. The Russian anatomical collection consists of 144 specimens made in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Apart from these, the department owns many later teratological collections comprising malformed foetuses, both human and animal.

Most collections of the department (599) are osteological and total about 15 thousand skeletons acquired through archaeological excavations of burials dating from various epochs from the Upper Paleolithic to the present. Especially unique are Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Chalcolithic remains.

Most skeletal finds are from the former USSR, but some represent prehistoric and modern populations of Western Europe, foreign Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Oceania.

The first skeletal collections were received by the Anatomical Cabinet of St.-Petersburg Academy of Sciences (later Department of Anthropology of MAE) in the 1830s and 1840s. Intense accumulation and study of human crania was initiated by Academician K. von Baer, the founder of Russian physical anthropology. After he became Head of the Anatomical Cabinet of St.-Petersburg Academy of Sciences, he managed to interest Academy members in physical anthropology and established contacts with Russian archaeologists and ethnographers. As a result, cranial remains began to arrive from different places. By 1858 the Kunstkamera had owned as many as 350 crania.

The most rapid influx of skeletal materials took place in the 1930s – 1970s, when most human remains excavated by archaeological expeditions in this country were shipped to MAE. Moreover, the museum set up its own expeditions to collect skeletal material.

Also, there are some 2,200 samples of hair of people inhabiting various geographic regions, masks and busts of representatives of various physical types both Russian and foreign, negatives and photographs of people, taken throughout the world, plaster casts of fossils, sculptural reconstructions of prehistoric people and of certain historical figures.

In 1995 the department together with all its collections (except anatomical ones) moved to a separate building at 24, Srednii prospect, Vassilievskii Island.

The department’s staff is currently working on a computer catalogue of anthropological collections and on the Russian craniological data bank. The catalogue of Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Chalcolithic skeletal materials is available in printed form:

  • Gokhman I.I., Kozintsev A.G. Sistematicheskoe opisanie kollektsii otdela antropologii MAE. Ch. 1. Osteologicheskie kollektsii. Razdel 1. Paleolit, mezolit, neolit i eneolit [A systematic description of the collections of the Department of Anthropology of MAE. Part 1. Osteological collections. Section 1. Paleolithic, Mezolithic, Neolithic and Eneolithic Epochs] // Issledovaniya po paleoantropologii i kraniologii SSSR. Leningrad, 1980. P. 182–222. (MAE Collection. Vol. XXXVI).