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A 9,500-year-old skull gets a 3D makeover

Published 6th January 2017
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A 9,500-year-old skull gets a 3D makeover
For years, the battered 9,500-year-old Jericho Skull has been one of the British Museum's most chilling exhibits -- as well as its oldest portrait. Decorated with plaster in a Neolithic ritual, it was of seven discovered by eminent British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon more than 60 years ago in Jericho, West Bank, one of the world's oldest cities.
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Now visitors are coming face to face with the man behind the plaster mask, after an extraordinary reconstruction effort that combined forensic science and the latest technology.
His features are so modern, he would not look out of place in a crowd today.
"He does look very modern, [but] these were modern humans living at Jericho," says Alexandra Fletcher, the museum's Raymond and Beverly Sackler Curator for the Ancient Near East, who has studied the skull for years.
"People get these ideas about hairy cavemen. That's not it at all. These are modern human populations, just like you and me."

A face with character

Until now, the plaster covering made it difficult to find out much about the real person underneath without doing irreversible damage to it. The cranium had also been packed with soil to stop the bone from collapsing under the weight of the plaster, rendering earlier attempts at X-raying the skull ineffective.
The reconstruction combined forensic science and the latest technology in a major collaboration with the Natural History Museum, Imperial College and the Charing Cross Hospital.
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Micro-CT scanning and 3D printing were used to extract a model of the skull from underneath the plaster face, revealing details that could not be seen until now, including broken and rotting teeth, and severe abscesses that suggest he endured acute pain.
His teeth help to confirm that he was over 40 when he died -- a ripe age in his day. An injury above his eye shows that his head had been so tightly bound in infancy that it permanently changed its shape. The man had also suffered a broken nose during his adult life, though it had healed before his death.
"He does look like he could handle himself, partly because of that broken nose," Fletcher jokes. "The fact that he had toothache makes him more human."

'A direct window into the past'

Fletcher believes the plaster skulls may be linked to the Neolithic worship of ancestors, but admits that no one can be quite sure.
"The real problem with dealing with deep history like this is that we can never be certain what was going on. So everything comes with a 'probably' and a 'maybe,'" Fletcher says.
The face of the Jericho Skull was re-built in clay, mucle by muscle. Credit: Copyright Trustees of the British Museum. Photo by RN-DS partnership
"It's easy to dismiss the reconstruction as artistic and interpretative. But it originally came out of work with the police to identify unknown human remains. So we know that, if we could travel in time and bring his family into the room, they would recognize him."
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When she saw his reconstructed features for the first time, she found herself welling up.
"Suddenly I get to see what he looked like... It's silly to get emotional, but you invest a lot of yourself in this kind of work. It was incredibly rewarding to see his face."
She adds: "We are getting a direct window into the past."
"Creating an Ancestor: The Jericho Skull" is on view at the British Museum in London until February 19, 2017.
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