– 400 C.E.
Ancient Cultures

Jericho

Jericho, Tell es-Sultan by Bethhold Werner
Jericho, Tell es-Sultan archaeological site

A Natural Oasis
The site of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea and due west of the Jordan River, is
one of the oldest continuously lived-in cities in the world. The reason for this may
be found in its Arabic name, Ārīḥā, which means fragrant; Jericho is a natural oasis
in the desert where countless fresh water springs can be found. This resource, which
drew its first visitors between 10,000 and 9000 BCE, still has ancestors that live there
today.

Biblical Reference
The site of Jericho is best known for its identity in the Bible and this has drawn
pilgrims and explorers to it as early as the 4th century CE; serious archaeological
exploration didn’t begin until the latter half of the 19th century. What continues to
draw archaeologists to Jericho today is the hope of finding some evidence of the
warrior Joshua, who lead the Israelites to an unlikely victory against the Canaanites
("the walls of the city fell when Joshua and his men marched around them blowing
horns" Joshua 6:1-27). Although unequivocal evidence of Joshua himself has yet to
be found, what has been uncovered are some 12,000 years of human activity.
The most spectacular finds at Jericho, however, do not date to the time of Joshua,
roughly the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE), but rather to the earliest part of the
Neolithic era, before even the technology to make pottery had been discovered. 

Looking down at the tower at Jericho, photo by Reinhard Dietrich
Pre-Pottery era tower at Jericho

Old Walls
The site of Jericho rises above the wide plain of the Jordan Valley, its height the
result of layer upon layer of human habitation, a formation called a Tell. The
earliest visitors to the site who left remains (stone tools) came in the Mesolithic
period (around 9000 BCE) but the first settlement at the site, around the Ein as-
Sultan spring, dates to the early Neolithic era, and these people, who built homes,
grew plants, and kept animals, were among the earliest to do such anywhere in
the world. Specifically, in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A levels at Jericho (8500-7000
BCE) archaeologists found remains of a very large settlement of circular homes
made with mud brick and topped with domed roofs.

As the name of this era implies, these early people at Jericho had not yet figured
out how to make pottery, but they made vessels out of stone, wove cloth and for
tools were trading for aparticularly useful kind of stone, obsidian, from as far away
as Çiftlik, in eastern Turkey. The settlement grew quickly and, for reasons unknown,
the inhabitants soon constructed a substantial stone wall and exterior ditch around
their town, complete with a stone tower almost eight meters high, set against the
inner side of the wall. Theories as to the function of this wall range from military
defense to keeping out animal predators to even combating the natural rising of the
level of the ground surrounding the settlement. However, regardless of its original
use, here we have the first version of the walls Joshua so ably conquered some six
thousand years later.

Plastered Human Skulls
The Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period is followed by the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (7000-
5200 BCE), which was different from its predecessor in important ways. Houses in
this era were uniformly rectangular and constructed with a new kind of rectangular
mud bricks which were decorated with herringbone thumb impressions, and
always laid lengthwise in thick mud mortar. This mortar, like a plaster, was also
used to create a smooth surface on the interior walls, extending down across the
floors as well. In this period there is some strong evidence for cult or religious belief
at Jericho. Archaeologists discovered one uniquely large building dating to the period
with unique series of plastered interior pits and basins as well as domed adjoining
structures and it is thought this was for ceremonial use. Other possible evidence
of cult practice was discovered in several homes of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic town,
in the form of plastered human skulls which were molded over to resemble living
heads. Shells were used for eyes and traces of paint revealed that skin and hair
were also included in the representations. The largest group found together were
nine examples, buried in the fill below the plastered floor of one house.

Pre-Pottery Plastered Skulls
Plastered Skulls from Yiftah'el

Jericho isn’t the only site at which plastered skulls have been found in Pre-Pottery
Neolithic B levels; they have also been found at Tell Ramad, Beisamoun, Kfar
Hahoresh, ‘Ain Ghazal and Nahal Hemar. Among the some sixty-two skulls
discovered among these sites, we know that older and younger men as well as
women and children are represented, which poses interesting questions as to their
meaning. Were they focal points in ancestor worship, as was originally thought, or
did they function as images by which deceased family members could be
remembered? As we are without any written record of the belief system practiced
in the Neolithic period in the area, we will never know. 

Text by Dr. Senta German

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Where and When

Jericho
Jericho, West Bank, Palestinian Territories
from c. 8,500 B.C.E.
This work is an open educational resource and This work is licensed under a Creative Common Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.