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.

What have these stones…?

By John Bartlett, formerly Editor of Palestine Exploration Quarterly and PEF Chairman

I took part, as my first experience of archaeology, in the second season (January-June, 1962) of Kathleen Kenyon‘s Jerusalem digs, which followed her famous Jericho excavations. Kenyon was particularly concerned to locate the early walls and so the early location of the city of Jerusalem, and made important Middle and Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age discoveries on the slopes of Ophel and elsewhere.

As one of the newest recruits, I was in charge of the lowest square at the bottom of the Ophel slope, with a pick-man, a hoe-man, and three basket boys. This involved climbing from top to bottom, and bottom to top, of the Ophel hillside at least twice a day, starting at 5.0 a.m.and working through until 2.0 p.m. Half way through the season I was transferred to the Armenian Garden, a pleasant and less exhausting location, where under the enthusiastic guidance of Pere de Vaux, and with the help of a small railway with a tipping truck, we excavated remains from medieval Jerusalem.

Among the team I remember Ian Blake, who with calm efficiency took over the photography when the official photographer fell into the trench and was hospitalised; David Ap-Thomas, who was Hon. Sec. of the Society for Old Testament Study; Agnes Spycket from  the Louvre, Dorothy Marshall who ran the technicalities of recording the pottery and finds, Awni Dajani from the Jordanian Dept of Antiquities, Peter Parr from the British School in Jerusalem, Douglas and Maggie Tushingham from the Royal Ontario Museum, Jo Callaway from the USA. Above all there were Pere de Vaux and some of his students from the Ecole Biblique, and Kathleen Kenyon herself, whose daily stamina as she walked up and down Ophel and drove the Pontiac car round the sites was astonishing, and whose ability to assess and guide our work on her daily visits to each square was inspiring.

After the daily siesta, in late afternoon as the walls of Jerusalem reflected a warm glow, I used to walk about  the old city, observing both buildings and the people. I was at the time a student preparing for ordination in the Church of England, and my introduction to other major Christian denominations and to the world of Islam in Jerusalem was an eye-opener. I realised immediately that there was more to religious belief than one Christian denomination could offer, and that has had a strong effect (I believe salutary) on my own contribution as a university teacher and Anglican clergyman.

This effect emerged in the sonnet I wrote that April. I wrote it because one evening after dinner, Ian Blake and I were talking with Theodora Newbould, who ruled Watson House and its domestic administration with great wisdom and efficiency. Ian was an English graduate of Trinity College, Dublin (where I subsequently became Associate Professor of Biblical studies), and we were talking about poetry. Theodora said that all young men should be able to write sonnets even if they could not write poetry, and we both took up the challenge, and presented Theodora the next morning with our efforts.

Mine is given here (hidden and forgotten for 50 years, it remerged from dusty files last month). Ian’s was better, but, alas, I have no copy of it. But I do recall that one morning he sent down the hill of Ophel to me at the bottom, by the hand of a basket boy, a piece inspired by Wordsworth and Coleridge which spoke of a vision that came upon the inward eye of a host of basket boys….

Jerusalem 1962 was a wonderful education for which I have always been grateful, and I salute the memory of Kathleen Kenyon and Pere de Vaux and all the many other members of the dig who contributed.

Jerusalem sonnet