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Some of the artifacts discovered in the ancient city of Jericho.

5,000-Year-Old Jewelry and Eyeliner Highlight the Power of Ancient Jericho

2017 proved to be a fruitful excavation season at the archaeological site of Tell es-Sultan on the West Bank. A collection of unique Egyptian artifacts unearthed at the site shows that the ancient city of Jericho was even more important than researchers believed.

Five mother of pearl shells were unearthed while exploring a house inhabited 5,000 years ago. The artifacts were stacked on top of each other and archaeologists believe that the shells originated from the Nile River.

Dwelling foundations unearthed at Tell es-Sultan in Jericho.

Dwelling foundations unearthed at Tell es-Sultan in Jericho. ( Public Domain )

National Geographic reports that the archaeologists were lucky to find two of the shells still contained manganese oxide. This mineral was the main component of kohl, a cosmetic used as an eyeliner in ancient Egypt and other locations. Archaeologists suggest the manganese oxide was mined in the Sinai Peninsula – a location where ancient Egyptians are known to have sourced manganese.

An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container inscribed for Queen Tiye

An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container inscribed for Queen Tiye (1410–1372 BC). ( Public Domain )

Further excavations of ancient Jericho produced a tomb containing the remains of a child and adult. Both have been identified as females, with the woman possibly having been the girl’s attendant. The National Geographic article on the excavation season states that the burial has been dated to approximately 1800 BC.

Grave goods found alongside the bodies include: bronze jewelry and bronze scarabs, a stone scarab, sacrificed animals, and pottery. The stone scarab was placed on the girl’s chest and has an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription. One of the jugs found in the burial is believed to have contained scented oils or perfume.

The 3,800-year-old burial of an aristocratic young girl adorned with bronze jewelry and Egyptian scarabs shows century-long links between Jericho and Egypt.

The 3,800-year-old burial of an aristocratic young girl adorned with bronze jewelry and Egyptian scarabs shows century-long links between Jericho and Egypt. ( Sapienza Universita di Roma )

Lead archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of the Sapienza University of Rome says the combination of artifacts suggests Jericho had some strong ties to Egypt for a time:

“The discovery confirms a close commercial relationship, already in the early third millennium B.C., between the ancient city in Palestine and Egypt. It also shows the rise of a sophisticated local elite in Jericho.”

Jericho is one of the oldest inhabited cities  in the world. Over the years, archaeologists have excavated the ruins of over 20 successive settlements - the first of which dates back to around 10,000 BC. The extended period of settlement means this archaeological site provides insight on the evolution of human civilization.

Many people have heard of Jericho primarily due to its presence in biblical history . This is the first town which the Israelites, led by Joshua, allegedly destroyed after they crossed the Jordan River. It also has ties to Herod the Great.

‘Christ Healing the Blind in Jericho’, El Greco.

‘Christ Healing the Blind in Jericho’ , El Greco. ( Public Domain )

One of the most enigmatic finds made at Jericho to date is a small collection of plastered skulls created between 7000-6000 BC. April Holloway describes the Jericho skulls in relation to past funerary rites,

“In Jericho, as well as placing the deceased under the floors of homes, the people also engaged in another unique mortuary practice.  In some cases their skulls were removed and covered with plaster in order to create very life-like faces, complete with shells inset for eyes and paint to imitate hair and moustaches.  The flesh and jawbones were removed from the skulls in order to model the plaster over the bone and the physical traits of the faces seem specific to individuals, suggesting that these decorated skulls were portraits of the deceased. The subtle modelling used to create the life-like flesh is impressive in itself, but even more so given the very early date of these artefacts.  Evidence suggests that the skulls were then displayed or stored with other plaster skulls.”

The Jericho plastered skull, a Neolithic skull in the British Museum’s collection.

The Jericho plastered skull, a Neolithic skull in the British Museum’s collection. ( CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

Possible explanations behind the creation of the Jericho plastered skulls are: preserving and worshiping ancestors, as a reflection on the idea of life continuing after death, or as possible substitutes of the deceased – perhaps even to prevent the resurrection of or haunting by the dead. Another possibility is that the plastered skulls may have been head hunting trophies . These skulls have drawn so much attention that a skull of a man who lived in Jericho 9,500 years ago was the subject for a facial reconstruction project in 2016.

The Italian-Palestinian Tell es-Sultan/Jericho archaeological project , which is responsible for the recent discoveries, has been underway since 1997.

Top Image: Some of the artifacts discovered in the ancient city of Jericho. Source: Sapienza University of Rome

By Alicia McDermott

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