Around 7000 B.C.E., residents of Jericho, a settlement in what is now the West Bank, transformed seven skulls into sculptures, adorning the bones with plaster and paint and covering the eye sockets with shells. Perhaps designed to represent specific people, the craniums were likely reburied as images “of community forebears long after their individual identities were forgotten,” according to the British Museum, which houses one of the so-called Jericho skulls.
Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon discovered the cache of prehistoric skulls while excavating Jericho’s ruins in 1953. All seven ended up in different collections, from the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to the Jordan Archaeological Museum.
But the very modifications that made the specimens unique also posed a problem for archaeologists hoping to peer beneath the plaster with traditional X-rays. In 2016, experts at the British Museum created the first 3D model of a Jericho skull, drawing on non-invasive micro-CT scans that digitally removed the materials encasing the bones to approximate what their owner may have looked like in life.
Now, reports Tom Metcalfe for Live Science, a team led by 3D designer Cicero Moraes is using an alternative technique to produce its own stunning facial reconstruction of the skull. While the 2016 model relied on the Manchester method, which is often used to reconstruct the faces of crime victims, Moraes and his colleagues used a deformation and anatomical adaptation method more closely associated with plastic surgery and prosthetics manufacturing.
“I wouldn’t say ours is an update,” says Moraes, who has also reconstructed the faces of medieval dukes, a Stone Age woman and Saint Anthony of Padua, to Live Science. “It’s just a different approach. [But] there is greater structural, anatomical and statistical coherence.”
Writing in Ortog Online, the researchers present two reconstructions of the Jericho man’s face: The first is a grayscale version with closed eyes and no hair, while the second is a more lifelike, speculative version featuring brown eyes, dark hair and a bushy beard.
“With the data we have, which [is] basically structural, we have a good idea of what … this living person’s face would look like,” Moraes tells Brazilian science magazine Galileu, per Google Translate. “But details like the shape of the hair, the color of the hair and eyes are very difficult to do precisely. So we came up with two approaches.”
The new analysis found that the Jericho man’s skull was noticeably larger than average. Previously, the British Museum team had revealed that the individual’s head was bound during his youth to alter its shape.
“In this case, the bindings have made the top and back of the head broader—different from other practices that aim for an elongated shape,” Alexandra Fletcher, the curator who headed the 2016 project, told Seeker’s Jen Viegas at the time. “I think this was regarded as a ‘good look’ in Jericho.”
The Jericho skulls are far from the only examples of plastered Neolithic craniums discovered in the historic Levant region. Scholars continue to debate the specifics of the practice, from how skulls were selected to how they were used. But as Fletcher wrote in a 2014 blog post, “a general agreement has emerged that the worship of ancestors may be involved.”
Speaking with Seeker, the curator added, “It may have been something these individuals achieved in life that led to them being remembered after death.”
By reconstructing the face of the British Museum skull’s owner, said Fletcher in a 2017 blog post, researchers followed “the ancient process in reverse,” replacing the prehistoric people’s rudimentary reconstruction with one that uses today’s tools and technologies.