British Museum blog

What lies beneath: new discoveries about the Jericho skull

Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

It’s always a problem for museum curators to find ways of learning more about the objects in their care without damaging them. For human remains, it’s even more complicated because there are additional questions of care and respect for the dead that have to be carefully considered before any research can be done. However, by studying their remains we can find out an enormous amount about the people of the past; about their health, their diet and about the religious practices they carried out.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The so-called Jericho skull is among the oldest human remains in the British Museum collection. Thought to be between 8,500 and 9,300 years old, it is one of seven Neolithic plastered human skulls found together by Kathleen Kenyon during excavations at Jericho in 1953. The site is now located in the modern State of Palestine.

Plastered skulls are thought to have been an important part of Neolithic rituals involving the removal, decoration and collecting of skulls. There has been a lot of debate about why particular skulls were chosen for this. Some archaeologists link them to the worship of elder males. Others suggest they were selected according to their shape or the status of the person in society. Some argue that they are portraits of revered members of the community. None of these theories are completely convincing, but a general agreement has emerged that the worship of ancestors may be involved.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

This ‘skull’ is actually a cranium because the lower jaw has been removed. There is also a section of bone missing on the left side towards the back where the soil filling inside can be seen. The cranium was decorated with a thick layer of plaster, shaped to look like a human face, which covers all of the upper jaw and finishes at the eye sockets and temples. Plaster has also been used on the base, so the skull sits upright on its own. Frustratingly, the plaster covers the parts of the skull which provide clues about who the person was and what happened to them. Therefore, over 50 years after it had been found, we still knew very little about the person whose skull this was. Physical anthropologists (experts in the human body) Theya Molleson (Scientific Associate, Natural History Museum) and Jessica Pearson, looked at how much the sutures (the joins between the skull’s bones) had closed and were able to suggest that it was a mature adult, but we needed to see beneath the plaster to find out more.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Museum has equipment for taking X-rays (radiographs) and my colleague Janet Ambers was able to X-ray the Jericho skull, but the soil filling the skull made it difficult to see everything inside clearly. We were therefore very lucky to be offered the chance to use a micro-CT scanner and its associated software by the Imaging and Analysis Centre, at the Natural History Museum, and the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College, and to work with two of their experts, Richard Able and Crispin Wiles.

The images created by the CT scans allowed us to look beneath the surface, revealing new details about the person that died so long ago. The scans confirmed that the skull had belonged to a mature adult who was more likely to have been male than female. We were also able to look at his upper jaw, where we found broken teeth, tooth decay and damage done to the bone by abscesses; all of which fitted well with the person being a mature adult. The back teeth (second and third molars) never developed and the second incisor on the right side is also missing. It is difficult to be sure without other examples to look at, but these teeth may have failed to grow because of inherited traits that are relatively rare.

The scans also allowed us see that the shape of the person’s head had been changed during their lifetime. It is possible to alter the shape of a skull by binding or bandaging the head during childhood. When we looked at the outside of the Jericho Skull we could see 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. The X-rays and the CT scans, showed changes in the thickness of the skull bone and, as such alterations can only be made while bone is forming and growing, this must have happened from an early age.

This work has also revealed new details about how the skull was prepared for plastering. The CT scans showed concentric rings of grits within the soil and a ball of finer clay sealing the access hole at the back. This suggests that the soil was deliberately put inside the skull to support the surface as the plaster face was being added. It is possible that the round piece of bone cut away to form the access hole was originally put back after the cranium had been filled. Although it was subsequently lost, its earlier presence may explain why the soft soil filling has survived so well.

The work has significantly changed our knowledge of how this person’s skull was treated both during life and after death, making clear the benefits of the long-term care for human remains offered by museums. This previously enigmatic individual is now known to be a old man who suffered badly from toothache. The deliberate re-shaping of the skull also suggests that for this individual, physical change and social status may have been linked, something seen across the history of humankind. The use of imaging techniques has provided us with new areas of investigation and suggested new ways to view plastered skulls; as a reflection of an individual’s life rather than just a treatment for the dead.

The Jericho skull can be seen in the British Museum in Room 59, Ancient Levant, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery.

Alexandra Fletcher is co-editor of a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum published by British Museum Press, which discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

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In respect of the dead: human remains in the British Museum

relevant image alt textAlexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

The most frequently asked question in the British Museum is almost certainly ‘Where are the mummies?’

Understandably the collections of mummified human remains are a great source of fascination for visitors and the Egyptian galleries are always busy. The current exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest CT-scanning technology to see within the mummy wrappings of eight individuals, providing incredibly detailed images of conditions that affected their lives and their treatment after death. It will surely be popular with visitors but these same visitors may not realise that the Museum cares for more than 6,000 human remains, which cover a much broader range of time periods and places than just ancient Egypt.

Lindow man, Mid-1st century AD, Cheshire, England, (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Lindow man, found at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, England. Iron Age, mid-1st century AD, C (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, about 8000-7500 BC. (ME 127414)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, Neolithic Period, about 8000-75000 BC. (ME 127414)

Some individuals are well known, such as Lindow man, the Iron Age bog-body found in Cheshire in north-west England. Others lie in storage facilities both on and off the main Bloomsbury site. They range in date from the truly ancient Jericho skull, a Neolithic skull decorated with plaster around 9,000 years ago, to more recent remains relating to individuals who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the remains in storage are skeletons but there are also examples of preserved soft human tissues and human remains that have been modified into new forms or incorporated into other objects. These present different challenges for museum staff in ensuring that these individuals are respectfully stored in the best conditions to ensure their continued preservation. This means any handling, study or treatment of the remains is done within the context that they were once a living human being; a person who in common with people today had thoughts, emotions and life experiences.

So why do we curate and display human remains at all? This is a controversial subject that has been debated for a long time and will continue to be discussed. There is no doubt that there have been, and will continue to be, huge benefits in having human remains available to study. The benefits of research however, must be set against the feelings of communities with strong connections to some of the human remains within museum collections. The British Museum has experienced several repatriation claims (see under related links on our Human Remains page), which are carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. Research using museum collections has been able to advance knowledge of the history of disease, epidemiology and human biology. It has also given valuable insight into different cultural approaches to death, burial and beliefs. This knowledge continues to grow as different techniques and approaches to such studies are developed and the total body of knowledge – within which comparisons can be made – expands.

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Display of human remains, both physically within museum galleries and online, is an important part of sharing this information to the widest possible audience. This not only spreads knowledge but may also help to generate enthusiasm for learning about our past; hopefully for the benefit of future generations. Of course, display should be done with careful thought. There is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity. As in storage, displays of human remains must acknowledge that the remains were once a living person and respect this fact. Human remains should not be displayed if they are not central to the information being conveyed and this has led to removal of some skeletal remains from British Museum galleries. Where possible, visitors should be able to avoid seeing human remains should they not wish to and the views of source communities should also be respected if they do not wish ancestral remains to be on public display.

There is no final word on such matters and no doubt the decisions made today will seem as out of step with current thinking in the future, as do decisions made by earlier generations of museum workers 50, 100 and in some cases 200 years ago. Looking after human remains in museums will therefore continue as a respectful balancing act across the boundaries of ethics, learning and access.

If you want to know more, a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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You can see some of his prints in our upcoming #AmericanDream exhibition – book your tickets by following the link in our bio.

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