Jericho was founded around 9600 BCE and developed into a large settlement with a population of two thousand by about 7000 BCE. During the Neolithic period, the people of Jericho had a mortuary practice of burying loved ones under their houses. Sometimes these bodies were complete and sometimes the head was removed and only the skull was buried.
Before the head was buried, the skull was defleshed and the mandible was removed, then facial features were reconstructed with plaster. So that the plaster crania retained the identity of the family member, individual facial characteristics were painted on with red and black paint. In many cases the eye orbits were inlaid with shells and the crania were decorated with hair and mustaches.
Kathleen Kenyon discovered seven plaster crania, that date to between 7000 and 6000 BCE, during excavations in 1953 at a site now in Palestine. The crania became known as the skulls of Jericho. “Skull” is a misnomer because the mandible is missing. Currently, one of the decorated crania is displayed at the British Museum.
The plaster on the crania at the British Museum covers the base and upper jaw and ends at the eye orbits and bones of the temple (temporal and sphenoid bones). The lips and remaining ear are reconstructed with plaster and the eye orbits are inlaid with shells. There is a circular piece of bone missing from the back of the skull.
Since plaster covers the bones of the skull that physical anthropologists use to learn about who the person was (i.e. sex, age, and ancestry), researchers at the British Museum decided to examine the cranium using x-rays and CT scans.
The CT scans showed that the skull belonged to an adult who was likely male. When researchers looked at the bones of the upper jaw, they found broken and missing teeth, tooth decay, and evidence of abscesses. They also discovered evidence of artificial cranial deformation. Researchers observed a “slight dip in the surface running over the top of the head from ear to ear which suggested that something like this had been carried out (Fletcher 2014).”
The CT scans also revealed the techniques the people of Neolithic Jericho used to prepare this skull. A round piece of bone was cut out of the back of the cranium and soil was placed inside to support the weight of the plaster on the surface of the bones. A ball of fine clay was used to seal the hole and the round piece of bone may have been put back on the cranium after it was filled, but has since been lost.
Though most of the plaster skulls unearthed have been male, archaeologists have also found ancient reconstructed crania belonging to women and children. This mortuary practice has been linked to ancestor worship and may have been a way to establish land rights.
Spotted via @DrKillgrove on Twitter.
Image Credit for Top and Bottom Photo: British Museum