In the spring of 1890, the 25-year old Sven Anders Hedin was appointed interpreter of a diplomatic team the King of Sweden was sending to the Shah of Persia. Before they left Stockholm, a Swedish professor of anthropology asked Hedin to bring back some skulls of Zoroastrians. (We can only guess at the racist motives of the professor, but those are besides the point in our story.)
In his memoirs, My Life as an Explorer (1925), Hedin tells the story of how he and a Swedish friend he had in Persia, Dr. Hybennet, fulfilled the skull collector's wishes.
Accordingly, in the middle of June, when summer was at its height, and the thermometer registered 106° in the shade, I set out with Dr. Hybennet for the Tower of Silence, the funeral-place of the fire-worshippers, southeast of Teheran. We chose the early hours of the afternoon for our raid, because then everybody kept indoors, on account of the heat.At the Tower of Silence, where the Zoroastrians kept their dead in open graves for the vultures to clean the bones, they used a ladder to climb over the wall.
We took with us a kurchin, or soft saddlebag, in the two pockets of which we put straw, paper, and two watermelons, each the size of a man's head.
A rank, sickening smell of cadavers met us...There were sixty-one open, shallow graves. In about ten of them lay skeletons and corpses in various stages of putrefaction. Whitened and weather-beaten bones lay piled up alongside the wall.He did get caught at the customs a year later when he was leaving Persia for Sweden with the skulls he and Hybennet had meticulously cleaned.
After some deliberation, I selected the corpses of three adult men. The freshest corpse had been there only a few days; yet its soft parts, the muscles and entrails, had already been torn away and devoured by birds of prey. The eyes had been picked out, but the rest of the face remained, dried up, and as hard as parchment. I detached the dead man's skull and emptied it of its contents. I did the same with the second head. The third had been lying in the sun so long that its brains were dried up.
Then I emptied the bag, wrapped the skulls in paper, after first filling them with straw, and then put them in the bag in place of the watermelons. The bag thus retained its shape; and there was nothing to arouse the driver's suspicion, except the offensive smell, which may possibly have put strange ideas into his head.
The need for all this secrecy is obvious. What would the superstitious Persians and Parsees have thought of us, had they learned that we infidels were driving about, stealing skulls from their funeral-places?
All my belongings were examined most carefully, and at last three round objects, wrapped in paper and felt, and resembling footballs, rolled out on the floor.Amazingly, they let him go with his skulls. Imagine that happening now.
"What is this?" asked the customs inspector.
"Human heads," I answered, without blinking.
"I beg your pardon? Human heads?"
"Yes. Look, if you please!"
One of the balls was opened, and a skull grinned up at the inspectors.
Not that anything is wrong with tomb robbery.