The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Amman Jordan/Dagli Orti

The menacing head shown here was made some 9,000 years ago in Jericho by applying plaster to an actual human skull (compare with photo of plaster skull found by John Garstang). When British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon uncovered plaster skulls at Jericho in the 1950s, she called them “portrait skulls” to suggest that they were modeled on the skulls of ancestors or tribal rulers. To date, 44 plaster skulls, dating between 7200 B.C. and 5500 B.C., have been found in the Levant and south-central Anatolia.

Author Denise Schmandt-Besserat offers a different interpretation of the plaster skulls. Drawing on later Near Eastern traditions concerning the human head, she suggests that these Stone Age skulls were created for their apotropaic power—that is, their ability to ward off evil—rather than to honor dead ancestors.