|Plastered human skull
|Human skull, plaster filled and painted|
|Centimetres: 18.5 (length), 13.3 (height), 13.5 (width)|
|c. 8000 BC|
|Pre-Pottery Neolithic phase B|
|Area of Origin: Excavated at Jericho, Palestine|
|Area of Use: Jericho; Palestine; Asia|
|Wirth Gallery of the Middle East|
Description: One of the most noteworthy cultural practices associated with the early Neolithic in the Near East, when people were first becoming village farmers, was the practice of removing skulls from dead bodies and saving them, sometimes elaborately decorating them. The focus on Neolithic skull removal and its interpretation as an aspect of ancestor veneration originated in the discovery of curated human skulls, and especially carefully plastered and decorated skulls, at the site of Jericho. Garstang found one example of a "decapitated" burial at Jericho in the 1930s, but concluded that it was the accidental result of post-burial earthquake activity. Kenyon famously found many headless burials as well as isolated and grouped skulls, sometimes carefully decorated with plaster and shell, at the same site in the 1950s. She specifically related these to ancestor veneration, the skull belonging to a "venerated member of the community whose wisdom it was hoped to perpetuate".
Since then, the idea that the skulls represented ancestors, or even specifically male elders, has been very popular, despite the rather frequent discovery of skulls, even plastered skulls of young men, women and even children, some of whom were presumably no one’s ancestors. This requires a very generalized notion of ancestors.
There also grew a popular conception that this "skull cult" was a "mechanism" for ensuring social solidarity or either perpetuating or challenging an "egalitarian ethic" at a time when the growth of large villages was presenting unprecedented challenges for people in the Near East. These interpretations, as championed by such scholars as Ian Kuijt at University of Notre Dame, place much less emphasis on prehistoric people’s beliefs about death or emotions surrounding the death of loved ones than they do on how ritual practices "function" to "regulate" society. No doubt this is at least in part because of the difficulty, in prehistory, with validating any theories that have to do with emotion or belief.
However, the hypothesis of ancestor worship has not gone without challenge. Recently, the French anthropologist Alain Testart has revived a very old idea that Neolithic skull curation had to do with head-hunting. He suggests that a Late Neolithic wall painting from Çatalhöyük in Turkey showing vultures sweeping down on headless corpses should be interpreted, not as a depiction of a mortuary ritual involving exposure of bodies, but as referring to the treatment of defeated enemies. There are numerous ethnographic parallels for the practice of decapitating enemies and keeping their heads or skulls as trophies, of which the Dayak of Borneo are a famous example. In addition, it is worth noting the fairly widespread practice (including at Çatalhöyük) of decorating houses with aurochs horns, wild goat horns and other possible animal trophies that could somewhat mirror the collection of human trophies.
That said, there are also difficulties with Testart’s hypothesis. Most notably, evidence for interpersonal violence (such as trauma in the form of broken bones, piercing with projectiles, etc.) in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic is actually extremely rare. That doesn’t mean that they were completely peaceful, but we might expect such evidence to be a lot more prevalent if trophy hunting and inter-community raiding were as culturally important as the ubiquity of skulls suggests. In addition, it is quite clear that the headless skeletons found below Neolithic house floors had their heads removed only after they had been buried for some time, as evidenced both by traces of the pit dug to retrieve the skull and by the fact that the mandible was usually left behind.
Michelle Bonogofsky has cast strong doubt on the "venerated elder" part of the ancestor worship hypothesis. As should have been obvious already, not only are the skulls not drawn only from deceased elder males, they include women and children, even quite young children. She has also disproven the hypothesis that teeth were intentionally removed from the skulls of younger individuals to give the illusion of considerable age; in fact, the skulls almost always retain their teeth.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the use of human skulls, including plastered ones, among various people of New Guinea, the place that partly inspired Kenyon’s interpretation of the Jericho skulls, was actually much more complicated than simple ancestor veneration. As anthropologist Roger Lohmann has pointed out, despite the importance of ancestors to the Asabano of New Guinea, the curation of skulls and other bones had much more to do with the ongoing relationships of the living to particular deceased individuals. In many cases, this involved the attempt to gain some sort of advantage from the deceased, such as acquiring their particular skill or prowess in some activity. The treatment of bones could also involve their concerns over the potentially malignant activities of ghosts. Although some skulls or other bones could be relics of ancestors, others were thought to have practical uses for the living, including those who were not descendents of the deceased.
While we may never know the full meaning of skull treatments in the Near Eastern Neolithic, most likely it was associated with identity, memory, and the particular attributes of the deceased. Cranial relics allowed continuing relationships with the deceased, but we should not be too quick to assume that these were always friendly ones.
Ted Banning, University of Toronto
Exhibit History: Wirth Gallery of the Middle East (ROM), 2008-.
VIDEO: Jericho Skull (time: 3.19; 13.5MB); Host: Julian Siggers, Curator: Dan Rahimi
Selected segment from the ROM/Discovery Channel series Hidden Treasures as seen on Discovery Channel.
Publications: Banning, E. B. (2010) Icons (human plastered skull), Past & Present, Royal Ontario Museum: p. 3-4.
Kenyon, Kathleen (1981) Excavations at Jericho, Vol. 3. London: British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem.
Bonogofsky, Michelle (2001) A New Look at 'Ancestor Cult' in the Levant. Proceedings of the Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations Graduate Students’ Annual Symposium 1998-2000. Toronto.