Why are the skulls from Jericho important?

Jericho, Skulls, c8,000-7,000 BCE Neolithic, Near East, (Palestine)

There were seven skulls found at a burial site in the Neolithic city of Jericho located now in referred to as Palestine. Probably, the most important things about studying these skulls is not necessarily the skulls themselves but the context surrounding the discovery of these skulls.

In 1953 and archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was excavating a “Tell” which is a large mound or hill, called Tell es-Sultan. You will see the term “Tell,” used to describe various archaeological sites throughout the ancient world such as a place called Tell Asmar.  Kathleen Kenyon, who is one of the first archaeologists, and also has the distinction of being one of the first female archaeologists, was excavating in the ancient site of Jericho mainly to prove that the Bible could be considered an accurate historical document. This is also the motivation for many of the excavations and archaeological studies that began in the early 20th century and late 19th centuries.  The main thesis for many archaeologists was to prove that the Christian Bible was inaccurate document and they were searching for historical artifacts to prove that.

The story of Jericho from the Old Testament or Hebrew Torah is probably based in an oral history that notes or describes some of the major landmarks from the Neolithic city of Jericho. For example, the biblical story describes how Joshua laid siege to the town of Jericho and for three successive days marched around the tall thick walls surrounding the city. On the third day, Joshua sounded the horn whose vibrations or sound shook the walls of Jericho and make them fall. Excavations have found large thick walls built and rebuilt over various centuries surrounding the town of Jericho. Some of the walls are simple stone and brick while others, later in their periods were made with herring bones of brick. Early archaeologists assumed that the location of the city as well as the evidence of the walls were evidence that this was the ancient site described in the Bible.

Another motive that Kathleen Kenyon had for excavating the site was that she was an advocate for training historians and archaeologists in a new scientific method that is referred to as stratigraphy. In stratigraphy, archaeological sites are divided up into grids that are both on the surface of the site and extend down into the layers beneath the site. Basically, archaeologists started using a more scientific method of graphing out and documenting the exact layer, stratum, and place where various artifacts were discovered. This detailed record allowed and allows archaeologists to be able to create a more complete record of the places where the objects were found as well as providing an accurate chronology or date as to when the objects were created and buried. Kenyon, would take students to Jericho and train them in this method. In the last stages of an excavation one of these skulls, which the excavator spotted first was a piece of pottery sticking out of the side of one of the walls of their dig was a piece of pottery. After further examination they excavated into that quadrant and discovered seven more skulls.

the branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.
the analysis of the order and position of layers of archaeological remains.
the structure of a particular set of strata.
"you can find materials at the surface which are samples from the deeper stratigraphy"

Kathleen Kenyon described these skulls is being placed in an important part of an early dwelling. Later on, the site collapsed and another later structure was built atop it. It’s possible that Kenyon’s observations are accurate, however, it is not conclusive evidence of how and where the skulls were placed so we’re not necessarily able to use the placement of the skulls to interpret what they might’ve meant.  Other skeletons and skulls were found in the same area. It seems as if some of the skeletons had skulls that were altered or had their lower mandibles remove and often the skeletons were dis-articulated. This also led Kenyon and other archaeologists to believe that these bodies and skeletons were preserved for honorific reasons, however, none of the other skulls or skeletons found were plastered over. Further evidence, that the skulls were used for honorific purposes seems to be that other skulls were found arranged in circles in other structures from an earlier date on the site.

The skulls physical properties are possible clues or evidence which may aid in our interpretation of the skulls use or purpose in Neolithic society.

Each skull was covered in a type of skin of plaster that roughly resembles a human face. The eyes were covered with seashells and the interior of the skull was stuffed with grasses and vegetable matter. There are no other objects associated with a layer or level that is nearby the skull, however, most of the artifacts found in Neolithic Jericho from this era, were made from stone. The Neolithic people of Jericho did not have clay pots or implements made from clay.


We are only able to guess or extrapolate some theories as to why the skulls were made and how they were used by comparing similar effigies or sculptures from other cultures. Similar skulls to this were found at a later site called Catal Huyuk which is located in modern Turkey. Another site called Tell Ramad in South Syria.

Other examples of human heads and effigies of people can be found in ancient Rome in the first two or three centuries as well as in Africa as late as 1600 common era. The uses of effigy heads like this were basically to honor and remember ancestors. This is probably what these heads represented. Further evidence for this could also be the fact that they were well preserved and well-crafted. If they were trophies of enemies’ heads they most likely would not have taken the time to sculpt them and preserve them.

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