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The Jericho Skull: Creating An Ancestor

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Excavating Jericho

The story is, of course, much longer than just putting an exhibition together. There are a number of strands that come together since the ‘Jericho skull’ was placed in the ground. The development of the science of geology, of archaeological practice, of historical research methods all have a place in the story. However, to make life a little easier we need to go back to the 1950’s and the work of one of the doyens of archaeology – Kathleen Kenyon. Kenyon was a trailblazer in many ways, becoming one of the most respected archaeologists of the day. Her work at the time was exemplary and the methods she and fellow archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler developed became the standards adopted in the field.

Kenyon had been working at the site of Jericho, also known as Tel el Sultan, since 1952 and was also working with Margaret Wheeler, wife of Mortimer (the world of archaeology was even smaller then than it is now!) and together they were looking for the site of biblical Jericho, the one where Joshua had the trumpets blown! It was at the end of their second season of digging that a student, Peter Parr, told Kathleen Kenyon about a find that was protruding from the vertical edge of the excavated trench. He left it for days as these things usually are, because taking them out affects the record of the trench. Even then it was apparently with some reluctance that Kenyon gave Parr permission to remove the find. They knew it was a skull, but it wasn’t until it was freed from the dirt of thousands of years that the full character of it became clear and it wasn’t what they were expecting!

The skull had been covered with plaster, which in turn had been shaped into a nose and cheeks, sea shells had been inserted into the eye sockets and there was even a rudimentary ear. As is the way with many excavations, something really important turns up at the end that causes something akin to panic! This was no different, and in fact the excavation was already being ‘packed away’ when this happened. Plans were changed and the dig carried on for another week, finding six more decorated skulls as a result. These extraordinary finds made news around the world, and made Kathleen Kenyon famous.

Of the seven, two can be found at the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman, one at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, one at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, one at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and one at the Nicholson Museum in Sydney. Other skulls have since been found at Jericho and beyond, and one of the Jericho finds is in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and you can see it on display in Room 35.

Interpreting the skulls of Jericho

Interpreting these skulls has exercised archaeological minds for 60 years now.  What do they mean? Well, most people think that they are perhaps the very first example of the veneration of ancestors. Jericho is the oldest urban site in the world, dating back over 11,000 years and these skulls come from some of the oldest levels on the site. The skulls were placed underneath the floors of houses, amid the debris of construction. Quite why, we cannot be sure, but the placement of ancestors bones/remains under houses is not unique to Jericho, but it was the first place this happened. There are examples to be found in the British Isles, including Cladh Hallan on South Uist.

The exhibition details the story of how the skull was found and how it languished in the collection for years. Finding out about the detail inside the skull was difficult as it had been packed with soil and plugged with clay. Excavating the inside of it was a non-starter, and x-rays produced little more than was already known. It wasn’t until the last decade and the development of digital scanning technology that more could be understood. Museum curator, and good friend of ours, Dr Alexandra Fletcher put together a team to investigate the skull and the fruit of their many hours of labour is this exhibition. You can follow the links below to find out more of this aspect. As you can glimpse in the image above, this involved re-creating the face of the individual whose skull we see on show.

Our visit to Jericho

As I mentioned, Catherine and I visited Jericho. It was largely deserted during our time there, save for a group of tourists who arrived about halfway through our visit. They were taken to a shaded meeting area near the centre of the site and their guide spoke to them for about five minutes. A few pictures were taken, then they were off! We couldn’t believe how short a time they spent there. Anyway, we continued to have a good look around one of archaeology and humanity’s most important sites. I have to say we were really impressed on many levels. Some of the features we could see, such as the well, were really meticulously excavated, and to see the walls of houses dating back so far in time was fantastic!

In the images here are some of the impressive aspects of the site. There are still upstanding walls made of mud brick, the famous ‘Tower’ and one of the skulls excavated at Jericho. This last image is taken from a postcard we found in Jerusalem. The Tower of Jericho is an 8.5-metre-tall structure, built during what archaeologists call the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period, around 8000 BC. It is among the earliest stone monuments of mankind. The tower is conical, with the base some 9 metres in diameter and the top 7 metres wide. The walls are approximately 1.5 metres thick, with an internal staircase made up of 22 stone steps. The construction of the tower is estimated to have taken 11,000 working days to complete.  

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The Jericho Skull Exhibition

The Jericho Skull exhibition is in Room 3 of the British Museum – just turn right when you go in through the main doors. It is free and continues until the 19th February. There is also a chance to be taken around the exhibition by its curator  Dr Alexandra Fletcher on a free tour at 13.15hrs 15th February. Having had our own tour, we can wholeheartedly recommend this!

If you are unable to get to the exhibition you can listen to the story of the skull’s excavation in The Walls of Jericho podcast, read about the exhibition in the British Museum blog and get to hear first hand from Dr Fletcher in Curator’s corner!


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