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OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

How can we deter those infernal headhunters? Not those inquisitive souls who select the heads of large organisations, but the lowlifes (should that be lowlives?) who knock off sculptured heads from museums, or knock heads off statues.

On July 30, a visitor to the British Museum stole a 2500-year-old Greek statue reported to be worth up to 25,000 (that's $72,000 in Australia, and $39,000 in the U.S.) The no-good grabbed the 12cm-high marble head, hid it in a pocket, shirt or handbag, and scarpered, shot through or vamoosed undetected.

Here's a good question for a trivia quiz: What common thread links Venus de Milo, Christopher Columbus, the Little Mermaid, Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher? ANSWER: Their statues have been beheaded.

Like the practice of burning people in effigy, statue lopping goes back a long way. Osimo, in Italy, named not after Osama bin Laden, but in honor of San Giuseppe, is known as "the city without heads,"  because of a display of ancient beheaded statues in the Council Palace.

In England, Oliver Cromwell's men ritually removed and beheaded statues in cathedrals and churches during the Civil Wars (1639-1651).

In 1964, the people of Denmark were horrified to learn that their world-famous bronze statue of The Little Mermaid, sitting on a rock in a park along Copenhagen's harbor, had been decapitated. (Carl Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg breweries, had commissioned Edvard Eriksen to create the statue, which was put in place in 1913). The Little Mermaid was given a new head, modeled on the old one.

Then in 1998, vandals once again cut off her head. "It's disgusting. It's a stupid prank, real stupid," said retiree Henrik Bruhn. Federica Vianello of Venice, Italy, said "We came out to see her not knowing what had happened. We're stunned. She is like Copenhagen's Eiffel Tower." Culture Minister Ebbe Lundgaard told TV2 "I'm shocked. We can't guard ourselves against stupidity."

A few years ago, statues of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, in Canberra, were decapitated in the dead of night, presumably by an anonymous republican.

And in March 2001, a marble statue of Christopher Columbus in the lobby of San Jose (California) City Hall suffered a sledgehammer attack. The statue (now restored) is owned by the Knights of Columbus.

Five months later, in Santa Barbara, California, another marble statue of Columbus was beheaded and spray-painted in an apparent protest of the explorer's treatment of indigenous peoples. An upside-down American flag was placed in front of the statue, bearing the words Truth: 509 years of indigenous genocide. [While Columbus is credited with having discovered America, he has been criticised as a symbol of European exploitation of native peoples.]

The latest victim of a headlopper is another Barbara, 76-year-old Baroness Thatcher, Great Britain's first woman Prime Minister. She gained office in May 1979 and remained until resigning in November 1990, the longest serving British Prime Minister for more than a century.

Lady Thatcher sat in secret for one of Britain's leading sculptors, Neil Simmons, after an anonymous donor put up the 50,000 cost of a statue, commissioned by the House of Commons's Works of Art Committee. She was delighted with the result, remarking that it made her look "visionary," but one candid critic described it as "truly frightful."

The larger than life statue (8ft. high, and weighing 1.8 tons) was designed for a vacant plinth in the Members' Lobby of the Commons where it will eventually stand with statues of Churchill, Attlee and Lloyd George. But there's a snag: under the rules, it can't be placed there until five years after Lady Thatcher's death.

The owners of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, who acquired the old London Bridge some years ago, have offered to care for the piece until Britain is ready to show it. A few political party-poopers (described as anti-Thatcher Labor legislators) have said (rather unkindly) that the sculpture of the former Conservative leader should be given to Arizona to keep forever.

The statue was unveiled for the first time in London on February 1, 2002. Five months later, when on display at Guildhall Art Gallery, it was decapitated by a man wielding a cricket bat. The sculpture is insured for 150,000, but the cost of repair is not known.

On July 4, theatre producer Paul Kelleher, 37, from Isleworth, west London, pleaded not guilty to a charge of having caused criminal damage. City of London Magistrates' Court was told how Kelleher entered the gallery carrying a cricket bat.

John Gilbert, prosecuting, said: "When he was beside the statue he took out the cricket bat and took a swipe at it... He took another swing with that heavy pole and knocked the head off. He didn't run, he stayed in order to be arrested, and was taken to a police station and interviewed."

Kelleher admitted having attacked the statue but said he would not plead guilty to criminal damage as he was "not a criminal," adding "I haven't really hurt anybody, it's just a statue, an idol we seem to be worshipping to a greater extent."

Sculptor Neil Simmons, 44, said he was "deeply saddened" by the damage. It had taken him two years to find the right sized piece of marble for the 1.8-ton statue, and eight months and several sittings with Lady Thatcher to complete the work.

Well, what can we do about these misguided mischief-makers? Perhaps the phrase an eye for an eye should be amended to a head for a head, and they, like their victims, should be beheaded!

MEMORIALS TO TWO INSECTS (OR BUGS)

The U.S. town of Enterprise, Alabama, is proud of its Boll Weevil Monument, "the world's only monument honoring a pest." Boll weevils destroyed the farmers' cotton plants, forcing them to grow peanuts and other crops, which brought them greater prosperity. As described by Shelley Brigman, "the monument consists of a sculpture of a lady wearing a flowing white gown, holding high above her head a black boll weevil. The pair stand 13-and-a-half feet above street level and are surrounded by a concrete basin from which flows a lighted fountain.

"Both the lady and her bug have gone through a few trials and tribulations over the years which have included theft and vandalism, but they were always restored and today remain as a source of recognition and pride for the city of Enterprise."

In Australia, we have a Cactoblastis Memorial Hall honouring another bug, Cactoblastis cactorum, that stopped the galloping prickly pear pest in its tracks.

Prickly pear is the common term for many large, similar-looking cactus species with succulent stems. says M. Fuller, Weeds Branch, Alice Springs, in an interesting article on the Northern Territory Government's website.

"Those most commonly seen in the Northern Territory," says Fuller, "are the common pest pear Opuntia inermis, spiny pest pear Opuntia stricta and Devil's rope pear Opuntia imbricata, but the tiger pear Opuntia aurantiaca, velvety tree pear Opuntia tomentosa, drooping tree pear Opuntia monacantha, Westwood pear Opuntia streptacantha, sword pear Acanthocereus pentagonus and harrisia cactus Eriocereus martinii are all important pests of Queensland and capable of spread in the Territory. Some of these plants may grow up to 7 m high and form impenetrable thickets.

"Prickly pears originated in the deserts of the USA and Mexico and have been introduced to many other parts of the world as ornamental and hedge plants and for their edible fruit.

"They were introduced to Australia in the early days of settlement, possibly as ornamental shrubs, hedge plants, fodder crops or as a plant host for cochineal insects which were a source of valuable carmine dye, in short supply at the time.

"From the early plantings, prickly pear soon spread and established itself over a large area, particularly in Queensland. It had covered four million hectares by 1900 and 24 million hectares by 1926. At least half of this area was so densely covered that it could no longer be used for grazing or agriculture and was virtually abandoned by land holders.

"The control achieved between 1925 and 1932 with biological agents, mainly the cactoblastis moth Cactoblastis cactorum, is one of the most spectacular examples of effective biological control of a weed anywhere in the world. By 1933 more than 90% of prickly pear in Queensland had been destroyed."

That's why the Boonarga Cactoblastis Memorial Hall was erected in 1936 in honour of the insect. Eradication of the pear led to a great era of development in that part of Queensland.

The Brigalow State School's webpage provides these further details:

  • 1862    Prickly pear introduced into the district.
  • 1910    Brigalow State School opened - ( the building cost 402 pounds.). The upper classes are currently taught in the original building! The township was then located in the paddock across the railway and opposite the current school site. Town moved to current site due to a train derailment.
  • 1910    Thousands of hectares of the countryside was covered with prickly pear. Early settlers attempted to dairy farm. Many early farms were abandoned - the pear was so thick in many areas that one could not ride a horse through the area.
  • 1926    Cactoblastis eggs were released in Queensland. The cactoblastis eggs were imported from South America. This was the first effective eradication of a pest that used biological control.
  • 1936    Boonarga Cactoblastis Memorial Hall built at Boonarga - 10 km west of Brigalow on the Warrego Highway (the only known building in the world which commemorates an insect).
 

Links:

  1. Photos of Thatcher statue (before & after)
  2. Margaret Thatcher News Centre
  3. Tourists looking at headless statues
  4. Boll weevil story 
  5. Sketch of Enterprise, Alabama
  6. Boll weevil monument
  7. Cactoblastis Memorial Hall
  8. Prickly pears article
  9. Brigalow State School
  10. British Museum theft: BBC report

POSTSCRIPT. -  ARMLESS MISTAKE! I made a bad blue (Oz for egregious error) in the above story, for which I apologise. Mara Munroe, of Neenah, Wisconsin, was first to spot it, and wrote in the guestbook: "Venus de Milo is missing her arms, not her head. It's the Winged Victory of Samothrace which is headless. Both in the Louvre, so the link in your mind is obvious."

Copyright 2002

Eric Shackle

Story first posted August 2002

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