More than six decades ago British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon unearthed a rare and unusual artifact in Jericho, in the modern day West Bank- the 9,500-year-old skull of a man that had been ritualistically dressed in a plaster mask and adorned with seashell eyes.
For more than half a century, archaeologists, scientists and scholars wondered who he was and why his remains had been prepared in such a way after death. Was it a type of ancestor worship or special preparations for burial or something else?
The hollow portion of the skull was packed with clay and soil, thought to be a measure to reinforce the bone and keep it from collapsing. Layers of plaster were then applied, emulating facial features, and white sea shells embedded into the eye sockets.
Now, 64 years later, the British museum has revealed what this man looked like through digital scans and facial reconstruction, giving a glimpse into the ancient civilization that settled near to the Jordan river, some 26 kilometers (16 miles) northeast of Jerusalem millennia ago.
To put the age of the skull and the civilization into context- we are currently in the year 2017 of the Gregorian calendar, the Pyramids of Giza are a little more than 4,500 years old, and this is the year 5777 of the Hebrew calendar.
“The Jericho skull dates to a period of the Neolithic (New stone age) before the making of pottery or farming had really become established,” Dr Alexandra Fletcher, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Curator for the Ancient Near East at the British Museum explains to i24NEWS.
“Jericho was an unusual settlement because it had an assured water supply from numerous reliable springs. This may be what allowed people to live there permanently in the first instance,” Fletcher continued, adding that elsewhere most people were still living a nomadic life hunting animals and gathering wild plants to eat.
“Jericho was probably one of the largest settlements in the area - if not the Middle East. Jericho can therefore claim to be the oldest permanently occupied place on earth,” she said.
In addition to this skull, which has been dubbed the “Jericho skull,” six others were discovered during the 1953 excavations at Tell es-Sultan outside of Jericho.
However, Jericho is not the only place in which skulls that have been preserved in this manner were found. Remains treated with similar techniques have been discovered across the Levant- or what is now known as Syria, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.
The facial reconstruction has provided some valuable clues into the people who lived there at the time and into the evolution of human societies.
“The plastered skull of this man probably acted as an ancestor figure for the ancient community living at Jericho to share,” Fletcher shares. “In turn, this may have helped them to overcome social stresses and develop ways of coping with living together in large groups. In such social solutions we can see the very first ways in which humans to learned how to live together in ever increasing numbers - eventually allowing towns and cities to grow.”
In addition to this bigger picture provided of the civilization, the team also wanted to learn about the man behind the mask himself, a task that did not come without hurdles.
“We wanted to know some details that may seem very basic - the age, sex and health of this person - but we couldn't establish these without using sophisticated imaging techniques as we did not want to risk damaging the plastered skull,” Fletcher revealed.
Previous attempts at x-raying or scanning the skull proved unsuccessful as the technology was not sophisticated enough to separate the skull from its plaster mask or dirt packing. This hurdle was finally overcome through the use of a micro-CT scan- capable of separating the layers to create a three-dimensional image of the skull with a resolution higher than that of a traditional hospital CT scanner.
Fletcher also worked with a team of 15 people, including physical anthropologists, imaging and micro-CT specialists, 3D imaging and reconstruction specialists, a marine shell analyst and two archaeologists who worked with Kenyon on the original Jericho excavations.
This scan and facial reconstruction provided remarkable details about the man, including a severe fracture above the eye.
“We could see that this man had suffered a significant blow to his head just above his left eye causing a depressed fracture,” Fletcher described. “The patterns of radiating fractures show this happened in fresh bone, that is - at the time of his death. This may not have been the cause of death however - we can't be certain.”
They also found that as an infant he had his head bound, permanently altering its shape.
“This may have been related to his social status or to religious practices - or both,” muses Fletcher, however she noted, “We need more data about the shape of other skulls from the same time period and geographical area to be sure of the significance of what happened to him.”
Another hurdle the team encountered is that the skull was missing the mandible- or lower jaw, but in the end was one they were able to overcome.
“The experts who undertook the reconstruction examined images of the skull from the same cache which still has a mandible in place,” Fletcher explained. “They particularly looked at the overall set and angle of the jawline, and examined data regarding the average size and shape of human jaw bones of a similar geographic origin and date. They then reconstructed a new mandible based on their findings and added this to the 3D print of the cranium.”
The end result— a man of about 40 years, who had at some point in his life broken his nose, had a few wrinkles, and kind but tired eyes.
The skull was donated to the British Museum in 1954, and over the decades has become somewhat of a familiar "face" at the museum.
"It was rather odd seeing the reconstructed face for the first time," says Fletcher. "My first thought was, 'Oh so that's what you look like!'"
"It was like meeting finally meeting someone who you feel you know well, perhaps because you have spent months writing to one another, but have never had the opportunity to see in person. So he felt both familiar and new all mixed together," she continues. "It was quite an emotional moment, finally being able to meet him."
The skull and the facial reconstruction of the man it belonged to will be on display in a special exhibit at the British Museum until February 19, 2017.
Jessi Satin is an i24NEWS reporter and photographer