Arts & Culture


Plastered skull


British Museum
British Museum

A close look at this object shows it is made from a human skull. The lower jaw has been removed and the face carefully modelled using plaster. Seashells were used to create eyes. CT-scans allowed us to see beneath the plastered surface and find out more about the person whose remains these are. The individual was probably a mature male whose poor dental health meant he had suffered abscesses and toothache. He had also experienced skull modification (changed head shape created by binding it tightly as the person grows). Knowledge of the physical changes he had undergone during his life seems to have affected how he was treated after death.

The skull was removed from the skeleton and decorated between 8500 and 7500 BC; a key period for social change in the Middle East. Great care was taken in the treatment and burial of the dead. This is one of seven plastered human skulls that were buried together at Jericho. Evidence from sites in Palestine, Syria, Israel, Jordan and Turkey shows ritual practices involved skull removal and caching, plaster and clay figures, decorated skulls and stone masks. These activities linked places with group identity, ancestors and memory.

After death, choosing the skull for plastering changed the remains from being an individual to an ‘ancestor’. Ancestor worship celebrates a community’s shared history in time and space and probably promoted group harmony within societies that were experiencing social problems. Jericho, at an estimated 2.5ha, was a large settlement for this time period. Items like the Jericho skull therefore encouraged societies to grow together, rather than apart creating the first stages towards the way we manage to live together today.

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  • Title: Plastered skull
  • Date Created: -8500/-6000
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 17.00cm; Width: 14.60cm; Length: 11.20cm (nose to top Y-suture); Length: 16.40cm (nose to back Y-suture); Length: 13.40cm (bewteen top parietals); Length: 12.80cm (between side parietals); Depth: 18.00cm; Weight: 3.40kg
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Registration number: 1954,0215.1
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Jericho
  • Period/culture: Pre-Pottery Neolithic B
  • Material: human bone; plaster; shell
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Excavated by Kenyon, Kathleen Mary. Purchased from British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem

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