Jericho, a Palestinian city on Israel’s disputed West Bank, is the world’s oldest continuously occupied human settlement. Thousands of years before the first proper city was founded in southern Mesopotamia, Jericho’s settlers were hunting game, raising crops, making pottery, and doing very unusual things to the skulls of their dead: covering them in plaster shaped to match the outline of their original faces, putting shells over the eyes, making them suitable for display. It was an act of love or grief or religious fervor, or some no-longer-understood mix of the three. And if it were not for the unsettling appearance that time has given to the skulls by picking off bits of the plaster at random, the finished products would be undeniably beautiful. Some say they are anyway, and I won’t dispute that.
The trouble is looking at how they’re constructed, and at the skulls underneath, without breaking these fragile works of art. X-rays, long used to examine the remains of mummies, don’t work as well in this case because the plaster, soil, and other debris impedes the view of the bones. So last month, researchers at the British Museum tried a different technology (courtesy of their local cancer research institute): CT scanning. What they found underneath the plaster was extraordinary.
As researchers examine more skulls, they may gain a greater understanding of how they were made, how they were used, and what they meant to the communities that created them. But for now, thanks to medical scanning, we almost certainly know more than any intervening civilization has ever learned about these skulls—and that’s a really good start.