In excavations that are currently being conducted at the Yiftah’el archaeological site, near the Movil Junction in the Lower Galilee, three extraordinary skulls from the New Stone Age (Pre-pottery Neolithic B) were discovered. The skulls are 8,000-9,000 years old and were buried in a pit adjacent to a large public building.
The excavations are being carried out as part of work initiated by the Israel National Roads Company and are being conducted by the Israel Antiquties Authority, prior to the construction of an interchange at the Movil Junction in the north.
According to Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily, director of the excavations at the site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The skulls were found plastered – that is to say sculpted – which is a phenomenon that is identified with the New Stone Age. The practice included the reconstruction of all of the facial features of the deceased by means of sculpting the skull with a variety of materials such as plaster that was specifically intended for this. It should be noted that the reconstruction of the facial features was not always done in accordance with their real location on the skull. On the skulls that were found in the excavation the nose was entirely reconstructed; the mouth was accentuated and the eyes were restored by means of three shells placed in each of the orbits. The rest of the facial features were reconstructed with a “plaster mask”. As mentioned above, the skulls were found in a pit next to a large rectangular building whose walls were built of mudbricks and floors were made of thick, high quality plaster. Especially noteworthy in the building were depressions that were fashioned in the floor and later sealed. Dr. Khalaily says, “It seems that these depressions were used as graves beneath the floors. The funerary practice at this time consisted of burying the dead beneath the plaster floors, inside the buildings. Some time thereafter, the residents would dig up the grave, retrieve the skull from the rest of the skeleton and recover the grave. Later they would then mold the skull in the image of the deceased and keep it inside the house. This custom is known in the scientific literature as “ancestor worship”. The molded skull is actually the image of the deceased that remained in the survivors’ consciousness, and it guided them in the various decisions they made in their everyday life. Evidence from sites that are contemporary with Yiftah’el indicates that the molded skulls were placed on shelves or benches inside buildings, which were specifically constructed for this purpose. After a period of time, during which the successor established his status and it was accepted by society, the need of the father image lessened and in another ceremony the skulls were buried in a separate pit, within the precincts of the building or nearby”.
The three molded skulls that were found at Yiftah’el join some fifteen other similar skulls that have been found to date at Jericho, Beisimoun, Kefar HaHoresh, ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan and at a site near Damascus. According to Dr. Khalaily, “The manner in which the skulls from Yiftah’el are buried and how they are shaped resemble those that were discovered at the Neolithic site of Tell Aswad and it seems that there was a connection between Yiftah’el and the Syrian site, which is located c. 200 kilometers away”.
Worship of the dead and preserving the memory of ancestors, especially those of leaders and influential people, first occurred with the images of the molded skulls and continues to this very day in different manners and in diverse cultures. Thus, for example in China the bodies of kings that date to 5,000 BCE were found which were sculpted in mortar; all of the dead kings were inside of a temple. Another example is the traditional dance in Japan during which the dancers cover themselves with a cosmetic mask that is practically immoveable. This is an exact imitation of the masks that they used to sculpt on the skulls of the dead there. The phenomenon of embalming bodies in Egypt 4,000 years BCE is also very well known. Today too, in certain regions in Africa (in the cemeteries in Zimbabwe, for example) the dead are sculpted in mud: the entire body is buried below ground while the sculpted face remains above ground.