Researchers have reverse-engineered the ancient ritual practice that created one of the British Museum's most important artifacts—the Jericho Skull—revealing the face of a man whose remains were decorated and venerated some 9,500 years ago.
The Jericho Skull is also considered the oldest portrait in the museum's collection, and, until recently, its most enigmatic: a truncated human skull covered in worn plaster, with eye sockets set with simple sea shells that stare out blindly from its display case.
Now, thanks to digital imaging, 3-D printing, and forensic reconstruction techniques, specialists have recreated the face of the individual inside the Jericho Skull—and it turns out to belong to a 40-something man with a broken nose.
An Unprecedented Discovery
The Jericho Skull is one of seven plastered and ornamented Neolithic skulls excavated by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1953 at the site of Tell es-Sultan, near the modern West Bank city of Jericho. The discovery—an archaeological sensation that brought Kenyon international fame—was first reported in National Geographic in December of that year.
"We realized with a thrill of discovery that we were looking at the portrait of a man who lived and died more than 7,000 years ago," Kenyon wrote, describing to Geographic readers the moment that the first skull was revealed. "No archeologist [sic] had even guessed at the existence of such a work of art."
While the seven skulls varied in detail, all had been originally stuffed with soil to support delicate facial bones before wet plaster was applied to create individualized facial features, such as ears, cheeks, and noses. Small marine shells represented eyes, and some skulls bore traces of paint.
Since Kenyon's discovery, more than 50 such ornamented skulls have been discovered in Neolithic sites from the Middle East to central Turkey. While researchers generally agree that the objects represent an early form of ancestor worship, very little is known about who was chosen to be immortalized in plaster thousands of years ago, and why.
Other Neolithic plaster skulls have been digitally examined, but the skeletal remains inside the British Museum's Jericho Skull are the first to be 3-D printed and forensically reconstructed.
Separating Plaster from Bone—Virtually
Kenyon's remarkable Neolithic portrait heads were dispersed to museums across the world for further study, and the British Museum's Jericho Skull arrived in London in 1954. But early attempts to coax more information out of the unusual artifact proved fruitless.
The passage of thousands of years had erased many physical details from the plaster covering the skull, and a traditional x-ray scan was unable to differentiate between the similar densities of bone and plaster. The result was "a white blob on an x-ray plate," says Alexandra Fletcher, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Curator for the Ancient Near East, who headed up the reconstruction project for the British Museum.
It wasn't until the Jericho Skull underwent a micro-CT scan in 2009 that researchers could finally visualize the human remains beneath the plaster. The scan revealed an adult cranium (the lower jaw had been removed), more likely male than female. The septum was broken, and rear molars were missing. A hole had been carved in the back of the cranium so it could be packed with soil, and the scans even illuminated 9,500-year-old thumbprints from where someone eventually sealed the hole with fine clay.
A New Face for the Museum's Oldest Portrait
In 2016, the British Museum created a digital 3-D model of the cranium from the CT scanning data and learned even more about the Neolithic man inside the Jericho Skull. While the scans suggested a broken nose, for instance, the 3-D model demonstrated the severity of the damage.
Fletcher's team decided to take things further and created a physical model of the skull using a 3-D printer. Then they enlisted the skills of the RN-DS Partnership, an expert forensic facial reconstruction firm.
It's as if we did the Neolithic process in reverse.
Using the printed cranium and the model of a human male lower jaw from another Neolithic site near Jericho, the forensic experts were able to reconstruct the facial musculature onto the digitally created remains from inside the Jericho Skull, just as people had fashioned cheeks, ears, and lips from plaster onto the original human bone more than 9,000 years ago.
"It's as if we did the Neolithic process in reverse," says Fletcher, proud that the British Museum's oldest portrait finally has a new face.
Until February 19, 2017, the facial reconstruction and the original Jericho Skull will be displayed side-by-side in a British Museum exhibit entitled "Creating an ancestor: the Jericho Skull."