J.L. Shellshear Museum of Physical Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy


The J.L. Shellshear Museum of Physical Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy specialises in collections of human, other primate and mammalian skeletons. It also has a display of casts of human ancestors and other hominids.

Current Exhibitions

The Alan G. Thorne Fossil Cast Collection of Worldwide Variation

Dr. Alan G. Thorne portrait holding a skull

Dr. Alan G. Thorne

Physical Anthropologist Dr. Alan G. Thorne is a leading proponent of the Regional Continuity theory of human evolution. During his tenure at the Australian National University, Dr Thorne constructed a collection of nearly 200 casts of hominid skulls, with a focus on the evolution of modern humans.

Dr Thorne recently donated his extensive fossil cast collection to the J. L. Shellshear Museum, which now holds the largest collection of fossil casts of the human lineage in Australia, and the widest range of African, Chinese and Indonesian fossil casts outside of Beijing and Jogjakarta.

This exhibition explores the creation of the Alan G. Thorne Fossil Cast Collection, the casting techniques developed by Ken Parsons, former Curator of J. L. Shellshear Museum, who was responsible for many of the Australian casts in the collection, and key human ancestors from the collection who figure prominently in the theory of Regional Continuity. The display was compiled by Master of Museum Studies student Bianca Azar during an internship with J. L. Shellshear Museum.

The Man behind the Museum: Joseph Lexden Shellshear

original shellshear brain illustration on graph-paper

Original shellshear illustration

At various points an Army Officer, Prehistorian, and General Practitioner, Joseph Lexden Shellshear (1885-1958) is best known for his research into the development of the peripheral nervous system, and the arterial blood supply to, and comparative morphology of, the brain. Between 1923 and 1936 J. L. Shellshear held the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong, after which he became the Professor of Anatomy at the University of Sydney from 1937 to 1948.

Through a broad range of material, from journal entries and personal photographs, to skull casts, diagrams, and specimens, this exhibition explores J. L. Shellshear’s key research, as well as his contribution to the study of the human brain, and was also compiled by a Master of Museum Studies student, Marina Grillanc, during an internship with J. L. Shellshear Museum.

Exhibition displays

Shellshear Display

Shellshear Display

Dr. Alan Thorne Display

Dr. Alan Thorne Display


The collections are mainly of human, other primate and mammalian skeletons as well as casts and endocranial casts of hominids.

Human osteology
Skeletal remains from the following regions: Australia, Melanesia, Oceania, Middle East (Pella collection) A series of foetal skeletons.

Skulls and some skeletons of all classes of vertebrates with an emphasis on marsupials and primates.

Casts of skulls and endocranial casts of hominids and other primates. The Museum also has reconstructions of Piltdown.

Archival material
Books, papers and research records of J.L. Shellshear. N.W.G. Macintosh collections relating to research and field work on the dingo, New Guinea Highlands, Australian Aboriginal fossil skulls, Aboriginal art and stone implements etc. Collected notes and references of S.L. Larnach. Historical material relating to the Department of Anatomy and the JL Shellshear Museum.

skeletal display
Piltdown reconstruction

Research and activities

Research in the Museum focuses on human osteology, burial practices, forensic osteology and identification of non-human bone.

  • Forensic osteology
  • Skeletal identification
  • Dental morphometrics

Research in the Shellshear Museum focuses on forensic osteology. Specific projects involve

  • Forensic osteology of the Sydney region
  • Identification of fragmented bone as human or non-human,
  • Non-metric variation and
  • The forensic and clinical consequences of variation of the paranasal sinuses in a Melanesian population.
  • Investigation of the palaeopathology of a Bronze Age population from Pella in Jordan.

Research access to collections
Access to the Australian Aboriginal skeletal collection may be given once permission is obtained from the relevant Aboriginal community. Access to non-Aboriginal skeletal remains may be given with permission from the curator, the Challis Professor of Anatomy and the Head of Discipline.

Shellshear entry - right hand side

Contribution to courses

The Comparative Primate Anatomy (ANAT2009) and Forensic Osteology (ANAT3006) courses use the Shellshear Museum as a major teaching resource.


The museum is named after Joseph Lexden Shellshear (1885-1958) a Sydney University medical graduate, who held the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong from 1923 until 1936. He then became Research Professor of Anatomy at the University of Sydney from 1937 to 1948. He is known for his work on the development of the peripheral nervous system (with Raymond Dart), on the study of the arterial blood supply to the brain and on the comparative morphology of the human skull and brain. He also had a great interest and stimulated work in the prehistory of both Hong Kong and Sydney.

Shellshear donated to the Department of Anatomy a large collection of human brains (no longer extant), skull and brain casts , books, bound scientific papers and records relating to his research work. This material was added to the department's osteological and zoological collections to form what is now the JLS Museum, established and named in Shellshear's honour in 1959. Since then, much anthropological and archival material has been added to the collections. The Museum has been completely refurbished and has become an important research facility for anthropological, forensic and other research work.

Shellshear - reverse view

Location and access

Getting here
The Shellshear Museum is located on the top floor of the Anderson Stuart building, room W601. Additional storage and laboratory space is located adjacent to the Mall Laboratory.

External visitors are welcome by arrangement. Please contact the Curator, Dr. Denise Donlon.

Admission is FREE to external individual visitors, anatomy students, bona fide researchers and scholars although some services, such as group visits, attract a fee.

Shellshear entry - left hand side