Plastered Skulls

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Archaeologist John Garstang was digging in the West Bank of Jerusalem in the 1930s. What he found was an art form that had disappeared for several thousand years. An art form that remains one of the oldest known in all the Middle East: human skulls covered in plaster.

John Garstang on a dig in the West Bank
John Garstang on a dig in the West Bank

Although Garstang only discovered one skull, others have been found since then; all dating back to the Neolithic. This is before pottery even existed! Several were found in one dig by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s and others still have been unearthed in Jordan and Syria. The purpose remains a mystery, but there are hypotheses on the subject.

A skull at the Jordan Museum
A skull at the Jordan Museum

One leading claim tells that these were in honor of the dead and a way of paying respect to ancestors. A skull would be covered in plaster, hair painted on, and shells placed for eyes so they could be venerated. Another hypothesis claims these decorations were for an opposite purpose: head hunting trophies. We may never know the truth, but having these artifacts still gives us a rare and invaluable glimpse into our ancient past.

A skull at the Ashmolean Museum showing the use of shells as eyes.
A skull at the Ashmolean Museum showing the use of shells as eyes.

Music: String Quartet no. 6 in Fm, Op. 80 by Felix Mendelssohn

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