Over 50 years ago, excavations near the town of Jericho revealed a mysterious human skull. But it was only recently that Museum researchers have been able to learn more about the person behind the plaster, thanks to modern technology.
The Jericho Skull was discovered among a group of seven other skulls in 1953 by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon – you can learn more about the surprising discovery in our podcast. Kenyon thought that the skulls were portraits of some of the earliest people to live at Jericho, and was thrilled with this new discovery. The skulls she found had been decorated with plaster to recreate human faces, and had shells as eyes. Some showed traces of paint.
At the time this person was alive, around 9,500 years ago, Jericho was one of the largest settlements in the Middle East. Mourning the dead was one of the shared rituals that helped bind the society together. Initially each plastered skull would have been a known individual, but as time passed they likely became ancestor figures who may have been worshipped. It’s thought they were safely reburied as portraits of community forebears long after their individual identities were forgotten.
Finding out more about the person underneath the plaster was challenging – the soil packing the inside of the cranium meant little internal detail could be made out using conventional X-rays. Museum Curator Alexandra Fletcher brought together a team of researchers in order to discover more about the skull – experts in studying human remains, digital imaging and 3D modelling.
Fortunately, progress was made in 2009 when the skull went to the Natural History Museum for a Micro-CT scan. This type of non-invasive scan allowed the research team to see the interior of the skull, and digitally remove the layers of plaster and soil. The detailed imaging revealed some surprising facts about this individual’s life.
The team found out that the skull belonged to a man who was over 40 years old when he died. He had broken teeth that were badly decayed, and abscesses that must have caused him pain. His nose had also been broken, but this injury had healed before he died. The most striking feature found from the Micro-CT scan was the man’s head shape – varying thicknesses of bone indicated his head was tightly bound as an infant, permanently changing its shape.
Studies of the scan results gave Curator Alexandra Fletcher details about how this person may have lived – his health, diet, and religious practices. But the face of this person that had been so carefully modeled in plaster over 9,500 years ago remained unknown.
That was until 2016, when the data from the Micro-CT scan was used to make a 3D printed model of the man’s skull. From this starting point, a lower jaw, created by copying other examples of a similar size and date, was added to the model. The painstaking process of reconstructing this person’s face then began, with specialists building up facial features muscle by muscle, layer by layer – a method originally created to make forensic reconstructions for the police.
The face of a man that lived and died over 9,500 years ago can now be seen for the first time since his plaster likeness was created in ancient Jericho. Alexandra Fletcher describes the journey to the reconstruction as being 'like the ancient process in reverse.'
The Asahi Shimbun Display Creating an ancestor: the Jericho Skull was on display in Room 3 at the British Museum in 2017.
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.
The British Museum is committed to curating the human remains in the collection with care, respect and dignity. The principles governing the holding, display, care and study of human remains in the Museum’s collection can be found in the British Museum Policy on Human Remains.