Photo of a Jericho skull

Same skull as preceding, as found in burial site

Online brochure of Neolithic plaster statues found at 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan

Page about Jericho and Neolithic Period with thumbnails (scroll to bottom for plastered skulls)

Article on Kathleen Kenyon, British archaeologist who discovered Jericho's plastered skulls
he first evidence of individual portraiture in the history of art comes from Tell al-Sultan, or Neolithic Jericho, in present-day Jordan. Nearly 12,000 years old, Jericho is one of the earliest urban settlements yet discovered. This site with its natural spring on a plateau in the Jordan River valley attracted the early settlers, who fashioned shelters out of mud bricks. Around 7500 BC, over two thousand people inhabited Jericho, which by then covered some 10 acres and was surrounded by a wall at least 5 feet wide and up to 17 feet tall. The wall, which had a 28-foot-tall circular tower built into it, is the earliest known permanent stone fortification . Sometimes confused with the ''Wall of Jericho'' from the legend of Joshua, this Neolithic structure predates the wall referred to in the Bible by thousands of years.

Beneath the floors of Jericho's mud-brick houses were family graves. Bodies were sometimes buried without heads, and by the period known as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), or about 7000 BC, decorated skulls were displayed in the houses where the skulls' bodies were buried. In 1953, British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon excavated ten such skulls at Jericho. Flesh and jawbones had been removed from the skulls and facial features were modeled in tinted plaster over the bone. The surfaces were treated with pieces of inlaid shells to represent eyes, and paint to indicate other characteristics, including a moustache on one of the skulls. The physical traits of the faces seem specific to individuals, suggesting that these decorated skulls were portraits of the deceased. The subtle modeling used to create the life-like flesh is impressive in itself, but even more so given the very early date of these artifacts.

Many experts believe the skulls are evidence of an ancestor cult in which it is held that life continues after death through the preservation of the individual characteristics of the deceased. Another theory gives the skulls an entirely different significance. It posits the use of the skulls as substitutes for the deceased in ''ghost rituals'' to help ward off the return of the dead. Although we may never know their true purpose, the Jericho skulls begin a long-standing tradition of naturalistic portraiture in the art of the Mediterranean that will continue for thousands of years until the Early Christian Era.

close window