The oldest portrait in the British Museum (probably) | Curator’s Corner Season 2 Episode 1


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.

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