The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Creating an ancestor
the Jericho Skull

15 December 2016 –
5 March 2017


The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus 

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Come face to face with the oldest portrait in the British Museum’s collection – a human skull that was decorated with plaster about 9,500 years ago.

The Jericho Skull is from one of the oldest cities in the world. People have lived at Jericho almost continuously since the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago. The plastered skull is one of seven that were found together. The others are now in museums in Jordan, Britain and Canada.

Uncovered in 1953 during excavations led by Kathleen Kenyon, the Jericho Skull was donated to the British Museum the following year. The plaster face was carefully modelled over the upper part of a human skull (the lower jaw is missing). The eyes are represented with marine shells. The skull was filled with soil, which stopped the fragile bones collapsing under the weight of the plaster.

The plaster and soil filling made it difficult to find out much about the person underneath without causing damage – until an opportunity to have a micro-CT scan at London’s Natural History Museum became available. The images produced allowed the skull to be examined in detail for the first time, helping experts to find out this person’s life, health and appearance. The micro-CT data was also used to make a 3D printed model of the skull bones, which became the basis for a forensic reconstruction of the person’s face. The display allows you to compare the ancient and modern versions of the face.

At the time when these plaster portraits were created, Jericho was probably one of the largest settlements in the Middle East (about 3 hectares – roughly the size of three football pitches). The creation of plaster faces over human skulls was one way early settled societies would remember their dead. Finding ways to bring a community together like this ultimately helped towns and cities to develop. Although thousands of years separate these lives from ours, the creation of shared memories is still something that helps to bind communities together today.

Explore the Jericho Skull in 3D


Listen to the story of how the Jericho Skull was discovered in this podcast