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A natural oasis

The site of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea and due west of the Jordan River, is one of the oldest continuously lived-in cities in the world. The reason for this may be found in its Arabic name, Ārīḥā, which means fragrant; Jericho is a natural oasis in the desert where countless fresh water springs can be found. This resource, which drew its first visitors between 10,000 and 9000 B.C.E., still has descendants that live there today.
Tell es-sultan, Jerico archaeological site from the air
(photo: Fullo88, public domain)

Biblical reference

The site of Jericho is best known for its identity in the Bible and this has drawn pilgrims and explorers to it as early as the 4th century C.E.; serious archaeological exploration didn’t begin until the latter half of the 19th century. What continues to draw archaeologists to Jericho today is the hope of finding some evidence of the warrior Joshua, who lead the Israelites to an unlikely victory against the Canaanites ("the walls of the city fell when Joshua and his men marched around them blowing horns" Joshua 6:1-27). Although unequivocal evidence of Joshua himself has yet to be found, what has been uncovered are some 12,000 years of human activity.
The most spectacular finds at Jericho, however, do not date to the time of Joshua, roughly the Bronze Age (3300-1200 B.C.E.), but rather to the earliest part of the Neolithic era, before even the technology to make pottery had been discovered. 
Looking down at the tower at Jericho
(photo: Reinhard Dietrich, public domain)

Old walls

The site of Jericho rises above the wide plain of the Jordan Valley, its height the result of layer upon layer of human habitation, a formation called a Tell. The earliest visitors to the site who left remains (stone tools) came in the Mesolithic period (around 9000 B.C.E.) but the first settlement at the site, around the Ein as-Sultan spring, dates to the early Neolithic era, and these people, who built homes, grew plants, and kept animals, were among the earliest to do such anywhere in the world. Specifically, in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A levels at Jericho (8500-7000 B.C.E.) archaeologists found remains of a very large settlement of circular homes made with mud brick and topped with domed roofs.
As the name of this era implies, these early people at Jericho had not yet figured out how to make pottery, but they made vessels out of stone, wove cloth and for tools were trading for a particularly useful kind of stone, obsidian, from as far away as Çiftlik, in eastern Turkey. The settlement grew quickly and, for reasons unknown, the inhabitants soon constructed a substantial stone wall and exterior ditch around their town, complete with a stone tower almost eight meters high, set against the inner side of the wall. Theories as to the function of this wall range from military defense to keeping out animal predators to even combating the natural rising of the level of the ground surrounding the settlement. However, regardless of its original use, here we have the first version of the walls Joshua so ably conquered some six thousand years later.

Plastered human skulls

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period is followed by the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (7000-5200 BCE), which was different from its predecessor in important ways. Houses in this era were uniformly rectangular and constructed with a new kind of rectangular mud bricks which were decorated with herringbone thumb impressions, and always laid lengthwise in thick mud mortar. This mortar, like a plaster, was also used to create a smooth surface on the interior walls, extending down across the floors as well. In this period there is some strong evidence for cult or religious belief at Jericho. Archaeologists discovered one uniquely large building dating to the period with unique series of plastered interior pits and basins as well as domed adjoining structures and it is thought this was for ceremonial use.
Plastered human skull with shell eyes from Jericho, Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, c. 7200 B.C.E. (The British Museum)
Other possible evidence of cult practice was discovered in several homes of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic town, in the form of plastered human skulls which were molded over to resemble living heads. Shells were used for eyes and traces of paint revealed that skin and hair were also included in the representations. The largest group found together were nine examples, buried in the fill below the plastered floor of one house.
Jericho isn’t the only site at which plastered skulls have been found in Pre-Pottery Neolithic B levels; they have also been found at Tell Ramad, Beisamoun, Kfar Hahoresh, ‘Ain Ghazal and Nahal Hemar. Among the some sixty-two skulls discovered among these sites, we know that older and younger men as well as women and children are represented, which poses interesting questions as to their meaning. Were they focal points in ancestor worship, as was originally thought, or did they function as images by which deceased family members could be remembered? As we are without any written record of the belief system practiced in the Neolithic period in the area, we will never know.
Essay by Dr. Senta German

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
    what are the mentioned A and B levels is that a different time period in the neolithic, or is it a reference to the level of the excavation?
    (18 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Matthew DeWard
      Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) is any Levantine and Anatolian Neolithic pottery around 8,000-7,000 B.C.

      Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) is any Levantine and Anatolian Neolithic pottery around 7,000-6,000 B.C.E.

      Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (PPNC): Work at the site of ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan has indicated a later Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (PPNC) period which lasted between 8,200 and 7,900 B.P.
      (20 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user James Hyoguon
    Why would they decorate the skulls just to burry them out of sight below the homes?
    (9 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Christian Lumley
    Could the plastered skulls possibly be akin to Sumerian votive figures like the ones found at Tell Asmar? The addition of shell to form the eyes reminds me of the wide open expressions found on the votive figures. Perhaps the decoration of these skulls allowed the deceased to continue offering prayers to the gods, similar to the votive figures.
    (11 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Alec Carpenter
    What is the most widely excepted theroy surronding these skulls?
    (7 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user zuzqaa
    "Jericho is one of the oldest continuously lived-in cities in the world. "
    So are there any other old cities as Jericho still inhabited?
    (5 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Daniel Rigal
    How respectable is it for a modern archaeologist to go looking for proof of something in the Bible? I know a lot of this went on in the 19th century but I assumed that it was looked down on now? My concern is that somebody focussed on proving one story might be inclined to interpret almost anything as corroborating their preconceived ideas or to ignore important finds that tell a different story that they are not interested in. I'm sure that not all religious archaeologists are like the crazy people who go looking for Noah's ark up various mountains, but are they regarded as truly objective, scholarly, archaeologists or as something a bit apart?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      You've got a good point. Until sometime in the late 18th century (in the West, at least) there was little doubt that biblical narrative equaled history. Disconnecting one from the other made room for more objectivity in research. That doesn't deny that the biblical narratives may be connected with history, but does recognize that they were written by people like ourselves, choosing from evidence around them and making up the bits in between for purposes of their own.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Peter Nelson
    Despite having no proof of Joshuah's existence, is there archaeological evidence that proves the wall had a major collapse whilst under a major siege? Or is the supposed siege a metaphor like the majority of the Christian Bible?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      OK, so there's archaeological evidence of a wall that fell down. That's one thing.
      There's also a story, found in the Bible, that a group of people led by a guy whose name means "savior" (which is what Joshua's name means) conquered the city when aided by a miraculous collapse of the walls. That's another thing. The question is whether or not these two things are necessarily connected. The connection would be a third thing.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user espenfix
    Why was obsidian a "particularly useful kind of stone"?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obsidian
      In the Ubaid in the 5th millennium BC, blades were manufactured from obsidian extracted from outcrops located in modern-day Turkey. Ancient Egyptians used obsidian imported from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Red Sea regions. Obsidian was also used in ritual circumcisions because of its deftness and sharpness. (You Wouldn't want to be circumcised with a dull blade!) In the eastern Mediterranean area the material was used to make tools, mirrors and decorative objects.

      Obsidian has also been found in Gilat, a site in the western Negev in Israel. Eight obsidian artifacts dating to the Chalcolithic Age found at this site were traced to obsidian sources in Anatolia. Neutron activation analysis (NAA) on the obsidian found at this site helped to reveal trade routes and exchange networks previously unknown.
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Peter Nelson
    What kinds of non-human predators were common during this time? Are there extinct kinds of animals that preyed on humans that the inhabitants of Jericho would need to construct a wall to keep out?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user surfer dude 808
    the skull dose not have a mouth
    (2 votes)
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