Repatriation of human remains of Lankans housed in Swedish Museums

Friday, 10 August 2018 Latest

Social Anthropologist, Daniel Cidrelius writes the following piece referring to the human remains of four Sri Lankan persons dating back to the 1800s that are housed as part of the Swedish Medical University Karolinska Institutet (KI)'s collection. In terms of a post colonial reconciliation process, here he raises the question of repatriation of human remains in Swedish museums.


Museums in Sweden hold collections taken by Swedish travellers visiting foreign countries during the Western colonial era. The collecting of materials was conducted as a part of the natural scientific project of creating an order in nature. Taking the Swedish zoologist Conrad Fristedt’s account of his travels to Sri Lanka by the end of the 19th century, I will in terms of a post colonial reconciliation process, raise the question of repatriation of human remains in Swedish museums.

In the foreword to Fristedt’s travel account he mentions that the main part of the collections he took to Sweden were put in the Swedish Museum of Natural History (SMNH). But Fristedt also acknowledge Professor Gustaf Retzius for taking parts of the collection.

As it turned out there were quite a lot of materials from Sri Lanka at the SMNH and after googling the Internet I became aware that the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet (KI) held material from Fristedt’s collection. Still today the material at SMNH is of scientific value for researchers. The material at KI’s collection could, however, be seen as a problematic cultural heritage.

KI’s skull collection

At least 66 museums in Sweden hold human remains in their collections. KI is one of these museums which contains skulls from, amongst other countries, Sri Lanka. It raises ethical questions. There are a few ethical parameters upheld by Swedish museums though there is a lack of national guidelines for caring and ethics as concerns human remains.

In his travel account Fristedt does not write about taking any human remains from Sri Lanka. However, when I contacted KI I was informed that there were human remains from four Sri Lankan persons. Fristedt can be held accountable for adding a skull to this collection of human remains from Sri Lanka, catalogued and sorted as III.33.

It was taken up as a part of the collection of human remains that Anders Retzius started by the end of the 18th century until the year 1860 when Gustaf von Düben took over the responsibility for the collection until the 1880s. Gustaf Retzius had indirectly contributed to the collection during his career but was only supervising the collection during the years 1888-1890.

The human remains from Sri Lanka in KI’s collection have been catalogued and sorted as III.33, Singhalese, Ceylon 1889, III.34, Singhalese and III.35, Singhalese [male], child. ‘III’ indicates the geographical category ‘Asia, East India’.

The fourth human remains from a Sri Lankan individual has been catalogued and sorted as III.40, Hindu, Madabar, Dambool, Ceylon, dated 1889 with references to a “Dr Morgan”. These human remains from Sri Lanka were taken up in the collection after 1860 but before 1900. There are no human remains from the Wedda in the KI anatomical collection.

I met up with the manager of the KI anatomical collection. According to the manager no research has been conducted on the human remains from Sri Lanka. The skulls were, however, exhibited in the KI museum.

The KI craniological collection in the anatomical museum was open two days a week and was one of the main attractions in Stockholm. Thus the skulls from Sri Lankan individuals became a part of a representative collection of skulls for a comparative study of the different kinds of people in the world.

I ask the manager to show me the skull from Sri Lanka. It has been packed in a white box in order to protect it from damage and dust. Because I was born in Sri Lanka and my purpose for seeing the skull is to raise the question of repatriation as a part of a reconciliation process I find it reasonable that KI show the skull, although I realize it is an ethical question. Surely, I would have wished that somebody else had watched the skull with a similar focus and thought more profoundly about how to model the healing and reconciliation process in dialogue with Sri Lanka as a way to make amends to the individuals that have been incorporated within this collection.

In Fristedt’s letter of negotiation for the price of the Sri Lankan skull, he states that it will be of particular interest to professor Retzius because this person belonged to a declining group of people in Sri Lanka called the Rodiya. According to Fristedt the Rodiya were living near Kandy and were in great decline.

The room is cold. The manager of the collection unpacks the white box in which the skull has been put. Putting it on my note pad. It is an emotional experience seeing it. Anatomists in the 19th century would probably have considered this skull as a desirable non-European skull having a certain index of measurement. Spontaneously I find it insane to watch this skull as a part of a collection. Completely insane! Vulnerable and exposed the individual’s skull lies on my note pad.

Who was this unique individual who’s body was fragmented and separated from its country of origin? What life was he/she leading before being made part of a comparative study of the different people of the world? Shouldn’t the process of healing and reconciliation begin to give the human remains a proper burial in Sri Lanka?

Basically, repatriation of human remains can be done if the Swedish state receives a request from the Sri Lankan government.

Therefore I have raised the question of repatriation at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Stockholm and I hope the Sri Lankan government can give the human remains a proper burial in Sri Lanka.

- Daniel Cidrelius, Social Anthropologist

Shows some crab fossils that Fristedt picked up in Trincomalee (it is kept in the SMNH)







Shows a part of Fristedt's book and a PM from the Karolinska Institutet stating that there are four human remains from Sri Lanka in the anatomical collection


Shows some mineral (it is kept in the SMNH)

Repatriation of human remains of Lankans housed in Swedish Museums