a cracked reddish tan plaster rendering of a face. The right eye seems to be filled with clay like a closed eyelid, the left is open, the mouth is just a few jagged holes, and there are two large holes in the left cheekbone

Plastered Skulls: What can a 10,000 year old tradition teach us about coping with death?

Teaching about Death and Burial

“Design your own burial” is an activity on my course syllabus. No matter how many times students see it on their handout and on the lecture screen, it takes them a minute to comprehend these words. Watching my twenty-something-year-old students think about their own mortality, their own death— sometimes for the first time—is eye-opening for me as a mortuary archaeologist. Teaching about death provides me with first-hand cultural observations.

Many of you who are teaching know that, given the choice, students always want to do more hands-on activities. But when the subject is “death and burial” it can be challenging to come up with activities that are hands-on, educational, and ethical. That’s where the “design your own burial” comes in. I want students to question how our culture and social surroundings affect the ways we bury (or do not bury) our dead. I want them to think critically about cultural relativity. My goal is to show that people are not (and were not) “weird” or “creepy” just because they mummified their dead or because they display bones as a form of ancestral veneration.

My research focuses on the ways the living interacted with the dead before and during the burial, during the funeral, and afterwards. I specialize in the ancient Middle East, which covers an area from Turkey all the way to Afghanistan. One tradition that still amazes me to this day is the practice of “plastered skulls.” About 10,000 years ago, communities in the ancient Middle East exhumed skulls from burials after the body decomposed and skeletonized. Then they used clay to recreate living features on these skulls. They sculpted ears, eyes, eyebrows, and a nose, which are parts of your head that decompose pretty quickly. Finally, they covered this reconstructed face with plaster.

Making Plastered Skulls

The practice of plastering skulls is not very common, but it appears in archaeological sites dated to the Neolithic Period (~10,000-4000 BCE) in Turkey and in an area archaeologists call the Levant (modern day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine). During the Neolithic period, many people in the ancient Middle East lived in permanent villages; they had domesticated animals and they practiced agriculture. Dead bodies in this period were often buried within settlements, either in pits underneath houses or under the floors of public monuments used by the community. In addition to such burial practices, however, archaeologists have also found these plastered skulls.

A human skull that has some orangeish plaster molded to it to create facial features
Plastered Skull from Jericho. (50 Objects 50 Stories Exhibition/Flickr)

The first examples of plastered skulls were excavated in Jericho —one of the earliest cities in the ancient Middle East— by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1953. Some had shells placed in the eye sockets, which make them look uncannily like closed eyelids. Another plastered skull was found more recently in the famous Neolithic site in Turkey called Çatalhöyük, where bodies are buried underneath plastered platforms in houses. The skull was placed in a burial of an older female. The old female almost seems to be hugging the skull (possibly also of a female), which was not only plastered but also painted in red ochre.

How were these skulls made? In my classes, students try to recreate them. Of course, we do not use actual human skulls; students work with (often terribly inaccurate) human skull Halloween decorations, magic clay, and shells. While they are making their plastered skulls, to avoid objectification of human remains, I remind students that the actual skulls belonged to individuals. Were these individuals from outside of the community or were they people who were directly related to the inhabitants of the settlement? Archaeologists don’t really know yet. The elaborate and respectful preparation of the skull indicates that they were perhaps not “war trophies” (although skull trophies known as “shrunken heads” or Tsantas were also elaborately prepared).

Students are often respectfully quiet during the activity. So I ask them the following questions to help them share their thoughts:

  • What are some difficulties you faced making a plastered skull?
  • Do you think they are portraits of specific individuals? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Neolithic communities created these images? Do you think they were treated as images, memorials, or individuals?

Some students answer the questions by saying that they thought of someone specific while making their plastered skull. Some say that they tried to make it look “alive.” No plastered skull looks like any other one, not when they are made by my students or when they were made by ancient communities.

“Wait, so they have to wait a long time for the body to become a skeleton before they do this? Surely that can’t be a portrait of the person if it is relying on memory?” a friend of mine asked, after I posted about this activity on social media. We know that plastered skulls were prepared after retrieving the skull from a decomposed body. The articulations between the occipital bone and the cervical vertebrae, especially the atlas (C1- the topmost vertebra), which along with the axis connects the skull to the spine, are some of the most persistent articulations in the human skeleton. Therefore, for the skull to be separated naturally from the neck one would have to wait for at least a few years, depending on conditions such as climate, depth of the burial, and soil acidity. This also shows that they were probably not a result of a beheading or another type of violent act.

Images of the Deceased and Continuing Bonds

How we interpret what these skulls meant and their function has been the subject of some debate. Were they portraits? A form of ancestor veneration? These plastered skulls were made during the Neolithic Period, before writing was invented, so practitioners left no written explanations of this practice. Archaeologists still do not know for sure what the skulls’ exact meaning or function was. Ian Kuijt, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, argues that during the initial burial and during the removal of skulls from burials, the living still remembered the deceased as an individual. However, after the skull was plastered and used in ceremonies over 2-3 generations, the plastered skull acted as an image of a symbolic or distant ancestor whose identity was forgotten (2008).

Today, we have photos and videos of our deceased family members to help us remember them and to share their stories, but the majority of the humans who lived and died on earth did not have access to photography. Only in the mid-1800s did daguerreotype photography become the first publicly available photography process. During this time period, epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus, and cholera were widespread. So was child mortality. Post-mortem photography became an important component of remembrance and grief as families would get a photograph of their deceased children or family member who died at home. In many cases this would be the only image of them. Some scholars have argued that these photographs would bring some comfort to the bereaved family.

When Harry Potter discovers that the Mirror of Erised shows him his dead parents, he secretly keeps going back to it just to see them one more time. We can easily relate to wanting to see a beloved friend, a parent, or a child who passed away. C.S.Lewis describes in his account of the grief he suffered at the death of his wife (1964), it was when he found himself incapable of evoking any visual memory of her that he felt most bereft. Images of the deceased provide us with a tangible link to them. They enable us to interact with them, talk to them, and remember their faces. New models of grief emphasize that a healthy resolution with death allows one to maintain a continuing bond with the deceased. This is in stark contrast to the 20th century models of cutting bonds with the deceased or “denial” of death discussed by Freud and other psychoanalysts, which were supposed to free the living and enable them to “move on.”

Turns out, we do not just want to “move on.” Rather, when someone we love dies we want to redefine our relationship with that person and allow ourselves to have a new relationship. Images seem to be one of the most important components of the grieving process and in establishing continuing relationships with the deceased. A plastered skull, a post-mortem photo, a Facebook memorial page, or a headstone with an etching or photo of the deceased teach us that humans have always tried to find ways to remember those who died regardless of the medium. Images are crucial in keeping the memories of the deceased and the bonds between the living and the dead alive.

After students make their plastered skulls and read about Victorian post-mortem photography, they are more comfortable talking about the case studies we learn about. “I like the idea of being able to meet my grandparents, even if it was only after their death,” one student commented after learning about the Toraja people of Indonesia who take out their dead ancestors, dress them up, take care of them, “feed them,” and introduce them to younger members of their family.

By the end of the semester, my students talk openly about death in our own societies and even in their own families; sometimes with a critical eye and sometimes with some dark humor, but no longer with fear or judgment.

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