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The Jericho Skull

Over many years, Curator Alexandra Fletcher has formed a particularly strong bond with one of the… older people in the British Museum. In fact, she was one of the first to see his face in over 9,500 years. The Jericho Skull is arguably the oldest portrait in the British Museum – a human skull from the ancient city of Jericho which had plaster applied to it to form a type of early facial reconstruction. The Jericho Skull is fascinating to look at, but since being discovered in 1953, archaeologists weren’t able to find out much more about this man – until now. Using CT scanning, 3D printing and facial reconstruction, Alexandra and her team have finally been able to reveal the man behind the plaster. Find out more in Room 3 until 19 February 2017: The Asahi Shimbun Displays Creating an ancestor: the Jericho Skull 15 December 2016 – 19 February 2017. Listen to the British Museum podcast episode on the Jericho Skull’s discovery on Mobile deviceSoundcloud, or iTunes

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Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

This is probably the oldest portrait we have here in the British Museum. Hello, my name's Alexandra Fletcher and welcome to my corner. So the oldest portrait in the British Museum dates to around 9,500 years ago. And it's a human skull, a real human skull, that's had a plaster face added over the top and then eyes inlaid with marine shells. So we think of this as being a portrait because the face is modelled on a real person. I've been fascinated by plastered skulls like this ever since I was a student and it was a real treat to be able to work with this particular individual for such a for such a long time. It's taken us about eight years to unravel all the nuances of the story that sits within this one plastered skull. So this skull, with its plaster face, was found at Jericho and he was actually part of set of seven people who were all buried together. And we've found a few more examples since in sites that go from Israel and Jordan all the way up to Turkey but they're still a pretty rare occurrence. He was found in the 1950s and they were the first ones of their kind ever found and we've been doing some work recently to find out more about him, his life and what happened to him. So the challenge when looking at a plastered skull like the Jericho Skull is to find out more about the person inside without damaging anything that's on the outside. So the plaster face...we can't chip that off to find out more about the features of the skull underneath but we need to see those features in order to find out more about the person. We decided that we needed to use CT scanning to look at the Jericho Skull in more detail and we worked with the Natural History Museum and were very lucky to be able to use their micro-CT scanner to get some really, really good images of the Jericho Skull. And the computer can then envisage artefacts and objects within the hole that you can then see in 3D. We were able to look at the condition of this person's teeth we could also see that as a child he'd had his head bound. There's a distinct line across the top of the skull and in the CT scans we could see how the bone had been pinched and then swelled out at the back of the head. We don't exactly know why he had his head bound or whether that made him a special person or not but it's certainly something that had to happen almost as he was born and then changed the shape of his head for the rest of his life. We could also see how the inside of his skull had been stuffed with soil. We could see that there was an outer, grittier layer and then a very, very fine plug of clay inserted right at the end in the hole that sits at the back of the skull. And in that hole you can still see the finger impressions of the person that had to push that soil into the cavity. We were able to see features we hadn't really appreciated before. We could see that his nose was actually broken during his lifetime and had healed because the bone has a distinct twist to one side. We could also then 3D print the skull that sits underneath the plaster. That was amazing. We were able to rebuild his face, muscle by muscle on top of the 3D print of his skull. This gives us a really quite accurate impression of what he looked like. It's never going to be perfect, but a member of his family walking in the room with our reconstruction would instantly recognise this man. It's taken the expertise of very, very many different researchers and people to pull the project together. And you get really strongly connected with it. You really start to think of this person, as a person. They become part of your life and it's a real privilege to be able to work like that. So if you want to find out more about the Jericho Skull and I know you do you can come to the exhibition in London until 19 February 2017. If you're not in London, why not listen to the episode of the British Museum podcast that tells you all about how the Jericho Skull was discovered? Or you can go to the website by following the links in the description below.