Fascinating Asphalt-Coated Skulls Excavated in Israel Date to 7,000 BC

Nahal Hemar cave in Israel’s southern Judean Desert has proven to be one of the most artifact-rich excavation sites in the region. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has provided details of a new study that took a closer look at some of the most remarkable objects ever retrieved from that archaeologically fertile location, particularly a set of asphalt-coated skulls.

Several human skulls have been found in the cave, dating back to the Neolithic or Late Stone Age Period. Astonishingly, six of these skulls, dated to 7,000 BC or earlier, were found to be covered by an asphalt coating, a surprising finding that left researchers wondering what type of metaphysical belief system had led to such a practice being adopted.

The back of one of the asphalt-coated skulls. (Clara Amit / IAA)

The back of one of the asphalt-coated skulls. (Clara Amit / IAA)

Analysis of Asphalt-Coated Skulls from the Judean Desert

The Judean Desert is an ideal site for archaeological work. The desert’s arid conditions help preserve organic materials from rot and decay much longer than more humid locations ever could. This helped prevent the total disintegration of the asphalt-coated skulls, which were easily recognized for what they were when they were uncovered during excavations that began at Nahal Hemar in 1983.

For the purposes of the new study, researchers looked at three out of the six asphalt-covered skulls, all of which are still intact and in excellent condition. They were able to examine these specimens quite extensively, which allowed them to uncover important details about how they were produced.

“It looks like a thin layer of asphalt has been rubbed on the back of these skulls,” the researchers wrote on the Israel Antiquities Authority Facebook page . “Then, the material [was] rolled between hands, fine asphalt ropes were prepared, and they were applied to the first layer to create the appearance of a mesh – perhaps even a hat.”

But, why did they do this? The tradition of decorating the skulls of deceased individuals was likely connected to observances associated with an ancestor cult, the IAA-affiliated researchers believe. The decorated skulls would have belonged to cherished individuals, presumably patriarchs or matriarchs, who would have been identified as the founding members of families.

They would have been worshipped over the course of generations, as symbols representing a deep connection with the land. Having these skulls in a person or family’s possession might have been a way to actually prove ownership of land as well, as this was an issue that might have come up once Neolithic Period populations began to rise and the competition for land became more acute.

The area around Nahal Hemar cave, known as the Nahal Hemar canyon in the Judean Desert in Israel. (Ester Inbar)

The area around Nahal Hemar cave, known as the Nahal Hemar canyon in the Judean Desert in Israel. ( Ester Inbar )

Nahal Hemar and its Amazing Treasure Trove of Valuable Artifacts

The cave known as Nahal Hemar was first explored in 1983, by a team of archaeologists led by Harvard professor Ofer Bar-Yosef and David Alon from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Located in the southern Judean desert on a cliff near the Dead Sea, the cave had begun to attract the attention of looters and antiquities thieves by that time, and archaeologists were anxious to perform excavations as the site before any more artifacts could be damaged or stolen.

At the initial dig and at subsequent investigations over the years, researchers found extensive evidence showing that an ancient ancestor cult had been active in the region during the Neolithic Period. The cult appears to have used Nahal Hemar as a storage site for objects that were adapted for the ceremonies and rituals of the cult.

Excavations have produced a broad range of these religiously significant artifacts, including rope baskets, shells, flint knives, wooden beads, bone figurines, wooden arrowheads, fancily decorated pieces of textile from ceremonial costumes, fragments of stone masks with the hair from men’s mustaches and beards still attached, and of course the human skulls decorated with asphalt.

9,000-year-old Neolithic mask from Nahal Hemar Cave in the Judean Desert. (Elie Posner / Israel Museum in Jerusalem)

9,000-year-old Neolithic mask from Nahal Hemar Cave in the Judean Desert. (Elie Posner / Israel Museum in Jerusalem )

Finding Glue at Nahal Hemar

One of the more fascinating discoveries at Nahal Hemar was the oldest glue ever recovered from an archaeological site. Made from collagen harvested from the skin and cartilage of animals, the glue was carbon-dated to 8,310 and 8,110 years before the present.

The glue functioned as a waterproof protectant for fabrics, rope baskets, and permeable containers, and was also used to hold utensils together. Remnants of the collagen-based adhesive was scraped off the surfaces of a significant number of the cave’s organic and inorganic artifacts, which suggested it was produced and used in relatively large quantities.

Dating procedures showed that the cave’s manufactured artifacts were made in the sixth and seventh millenniums BC, or between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago. This makes them roughly contemporary with the Pre-Pottery Neolithic culture that developed in upper Mesopotamia and the Levant during that stage of the Neolithic Period, following the decline of the previously dominant Natufian culture. Among their other accomplishments, it was the Pre-Pottery Neolithic people who constructed the famous stone mega-monuments at Göbekli Tepe , which can be found in modern-day Turkey.

One of the asphalt-coated skulls discovered at Nahal Hemar. (Israel Museum / CC0 1.0)

One of the asphalt-coated skulls discovered at Nahal Hemar. (Israel Museum / CC0 1.0 )

Who Was Responsible for the Asphalt-Coated Skulls?

The people of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic culture likely made the asphalt-coated skulls that were recovered from Nahal Hemar. They would have inherited this tradition from their Natufian ancestors, who also decorated the skulls of the deceased in this way.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic Culture was split into two groups, designated A and B. At other sites in the Levant, skulls linked to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B culture have been found, and in many instances they were covered completely in a thick layer of plaster .

If the B culture people were responsible for the asphalt-covered skulls as well, their use of asphalt instead of plaster would have been dictated by the type of natural resources that were available in the area. Luckily, Nahal Hemar was in fact located quite near an asphalt source.

It is notable that only the backs of the Nahal Hemar skulls were decorated with the strips of asphalt. This implies the faces of the cherished deceased ancestors were meant to be covered with stone death masks, 15 of which have been found at various Neolithic archaeological sites in and around Israel, according to National Geographic . Fragments from such masks were found mixed in with the other artifacts excavated from Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert , making it likely they came from stone masks that were once attached to the asphalt-coated skulls.

Top image: One of the skulls from the Nahal Hemar Cave. KEYWORD Source: Clara Amit / IAA

By Nathan Falde

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