A reinterpretation of Neolithic plastered skulls from Jordan, Syria, Israel and Turkey is changing the way scholars think about cult, death and the afterlife in the Neolithic and the ancient Middle East. Current findings, based on scientific studies as well as bioarchaeological evidence, support an interpretation of a funerary practice that focused on the special treatment of the skulls of adult females, males and children.
Seventy-two Neolithic modelled skulls have been found in Jordan, Syria, Israel and Turkey. Substances such as plaster, marl, animal collagen, shell and paint were applied to the skulls and crania (skulls without mandibles) to imitate facial or other features such as the eyes, nose, neck and a type of head covering. A plaster chin was fashioned when the lower jaw was missing. Before modelling, the skulls were removed from the skeletons of females, males and children. In the excavation of Neolithic settlements, these plastered skulls have been found grouped together without their postcranial skeletons. This lack of pelvic sexing information, along with the care involved in their crafting, in part led scholars to assume the practice of modelling facial features on dry human skulls was evidence of ancestor cult veneration. Some anthropologists and archaeologists claimed the plastered skulls belonged to toothless men who represented elders and community leaders. This led other scholars to conclude that the teeth of relatively young men were pulled out to make them look as if they had died in old age, thus promoting the notion of the veneration of old men and the importance of males in Neolithic society.
However, recent scientific analyses of these skulls contradicts this interpretation of ancestor cult veneration. Osteological examinations, DNA analysis, and/or Computed Tomography (CT scans) of 40 samples were conducted, along with a review of the various methods used to age, sex and determine the presence of dentition in the remaining 32 skulls and crania. Not all of the skulls belonged to males or even adults who would have lived long enough to have procreated, and thus be termed ancestors. Many of the modelled skulls belonged to children and females. There is no evidence that teeth were intentionally removed after death. More than half of those examined retained some of their dentition post-mortem. Factors such as extensive cranial damage, missing skeletal elements or obscured alveoli may explain an apparent lack of teeth in some of the skulls. Third molars are naturally absent in at least six of the 10 existing plastered skulls from Jericho, possibly indicating these individuals were genetically related.
In the Levant, 61 modelled skulls of females, males and children have been recovered from the sites of Jericho, Beisamoun, Tell Ramad, Nahal Hemar, Ain Ghazal, and Kfar Hahoresh. These skulls, which date to the early Neolithic (ca. 7,200-6,000 BC), were placed in a variety of locations, either individually or in groups consisting of as many as 15 skulls. They have been found in an abandoned and built-over house, under a plastered antechamber of a house, in a cave, in pits, beneath floors, and below plastered surfaces not associated with architecture. Plastered skulls were recovered from the floors of burned-down houses at both Jericho and Ain Ghazal, Jordan. Human and faunal remains as well as stones, collapsed brick and burnt timber surrounded the skulls. Statuary fragments and clay balls were also found with plastered skulls at Tell Ramad, Syria.
In Anatolia, 11 late Neolithic plastered skulls (ca. 6,000-5,000 BC) of females, males and children have been recovered from the site of Kok Hoyuk. These skulls were recovered in various combinations, either individually or in groups of two or five, from locations on top of mud brick furniture, in an earthen grave and on a floor in a destruction level, all presumably associated with domestic architecture. Horn cores, faunal bone, ceramic, obsidian, stones, ash and charcoal were found with some of the skulls, while funerary offerings such as beads, bone tools and possibly copper were found with others recovered in 2000 as a group of five.
The combination of realistic and caricature-like modelling of facial features on the skulls from Jordan, Syria, Israel and Turkey, with their detailed applications of red, white and black paint, suggest individual identities remained with the skulls of the deceased. The skulls may have been modelled and decorated in a manner that captured the essence of a personal trait or quality that reminded the living of the deceased.
The location of pathologies and markings on the plastered skulls, as well as objects included with the skulls, offer clues to the treatment and function of the individuals before and after death. Two adult female skulls as well as an undecorated skull exhibit healed depressed fractures. The wounds, all on the right side, appear to have been inflicted as the women fled a right-handed attacker. One of these skulls may have been laid on or wrapped in reed matting, as indicated by striations and imprints in the plaster. Analysis of striations on another skull indicates a sanding process which was likely the result of Neolithic human intervention during preparation of the deceased's cranium for either application or removal of a modelling substance such as plaster or bitumen.
The objects included with the skulls have decorative and practical functions. It is suggested that they were included with the skulls because they were treasured or useful to the deceased or held an emotional value. The objects may have been needed in the afterlife.
The modelling of the skulls of adults and children, their recovery from a variety of locations and contexts, and the recovery of funerary offerings suggest multiple functions for the skulls that could have included their use as fertility or apotropaic devices, or as mementos of the deceased. This information, taken as a whole, does not support the interpretation of an exclusionary form of ancestor worship. Rather, it supports an inclusive type of funerary ritual which focused on the handling, modelling, and care of the skulls of females, males and children. Continued bioarchaeological research on the plastered and modelled skulls is needed to address further questions regarding this complex form of mortuary ritual.
This article is published in the Daily Star with the cooperation of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading North American scholarly body for the study of the ancient Middle East.