Looking at the Face of History

By Felicity Cobbing (PEF)

Exhibition Review: ‘Creating an Ancestor: The Jericho Skull’

Currently showing at the British Museum’s Room 3 gallery until the 19th February is a small but fascinating exhibition concerning one of its most important exhibits – one of the Neolithic plastered skulls from Jericho in Palestine, excavated by Kathleen Kenyon and her team in the 1950s.

The Jericho skull on display in the British Museum. Photo: F. Cobbing, 2016.

Jericho on the Map. This relief map is based on the PEF’s Survey of Western Palestine 1871 – 1878, and digitally modified by F. Cobbing.

The exhibition was designed by Dr. Alexandra Fletcher in the BM’s Department of Middle East, and is based on the work of a research team that brought together colleagues from the BM’s Science department, Natural History Museum, University of Liverpool and Imperial College London.

Using the latest Micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology, the team have revealed hitherto hidden physiological details to us, and on display alongside the skull itself is a 3D reconstruction of the face and head of the man whose skull it was. The exhibition is at once the story of the excavations and Kenyon’s exacting methodology, the thrilling moment of discovery, recounted Peter Parr who actually found the skull, and of the Neolithic culture at Jericho from which the skull originates.

The reconstructed 3D portrait of Jericho Man. Photo: F. Cobbing, 2016.

The purpose of the skulls in this culture is examined, as is the process of the turning the human remains into a cultural artefact. The extraordinary science and technology which has enabled this story to be told for the first time is the final element. Guiding us around is the figure of a rather cuddly, child friendly Kathleen Kenyon, presenting her side of the story at the bottom of each test panel in a feature especially designed for families and school groups. The PEF’s own humble contribution is a photo of Kenyon at Jerusalem by John Bartlett.

Dame Kathleen Kenyon in Jerusalem, photo by John Bartlett as seen in the exhibition. Photo: F. Cobbing, 2016.

This little exhibition is a great example of how one object can tell a myriad of stories, and how research into objects is continuously evolving. There is an undeniably special feeling at looking into such an ancient individual’s face, not seen for 10,000 years, but at the same time someone who is entirely recognisable as one of us.

‘Creating an Ancestor: The Jericho Skull’ is free, and runs until 19th February, with gallery talks and events throughout this period. Check the BM events website for more details, including an absolutely fascinating podcast about the excavation, the skull’s discovery, and the modern science behind the most recent research.

This 1933 photograph shows a figure gazing the site of ancient Jericho beyond, from John Garstang’s archive at the PEF.