Ever thought about plastering the skulls of your dead loved ones?

Burial with grave goods. Peter Akkermans, Sabi Abyad Project

Death can be a problematic topic. Although not taboo, we’re simply not encouraged to talk about it normally. We’ll happily discuss it in an abstract sort of way, ponder over the death of others (as long as they’re sufficiently distant to us), and it’s on our screens everywhere. But when it comes to our own death, or talking about the death of those close to us, this chattiness suddenly dries up. Death is a fine topic of conversation when on our screens or pages, but not when it’s closer to home.

I have been wondering of late whether the past hasn’t something to offer us here. My work researching the mortuary practices from the Neolithic Middle East (7,000-10,000 years ago) gives me much cause to consider how the idea of death has changed. This is the region where our earliest civilisations began, where the foundations of religious practice can be seen and where the earliest city states emerged (even earlier than Egypt).

The funerary practices witnessed here may at first appear to be very different from our own experiences. One example of this is the plastering of skulls. The dead would initially be buried beneath house floors. But then the skull (or cranium) would be retrieved some time later, once the head had skeletonised and no flesh remained. Then, a face would then be skilfully built on the skull, using mud, lime or gypsum plasters.

Plastered Skull, Jericho. Kenyon Jericho Archive, UCL

These plastered skulls were used and displayed within households, and there is evidence of wear, repair and handling. Usually, archaeologists consider them to belong to elites and high-status individuals, or they argue that the practices were a method to hide inequalities through community engagement in rituals.

But recently, I’ve been wondering whether they also demonstrate something else, the idea of a continuing bond. There was a theory published in 1996 that describes grief in terms of these “continuing bonds”. It acknowledged that there is a need to keep the dead close to the living, with a recognition that death is not the end point of the relationship between the living and the dead. Instead of the bereaved being encouraged to “move on”, the theory recognises that the dead still play a role, still affect the living, and are still understood of as important.

It is entirely plausible that the plastered skulls represent more than a sense of ritual and respect for the elite – they reflect the desire to keep the dead close to the living, in a very physical sense.

Ashes to ashes

OK, plastering faces on to the skulls of our loved ones may seem alien to us, but scores of us keep the ashes of our dead close within our households. Or we scatter them in a physical location that can be visited when there is a need to feel “closer” to the dead. And what about the objects that are cherished that once belonged to the deceased – surely they’re not simply reminders, but offer a deeper “connection” to the dead.

We also come across grave goods – objects placed with the dead in the grave – often in archaeology. Again, interpretations vary from evidence of riches and wealth, to suggestions of connections between the living and the dead, to a more simple desire to place significant mementos into the grave. These objects provide archaeologists with glimpses of past lives, and deaths. But they also give one an awareness of the ties of loss and bereavement that are as relevant now as they were 10,000 years ago.

Such examples provide an interesting start to a conversation around death. They could help people consider mortality more deeply, by first thinking about these fascinating insights into the lives (and deaths) of our ancestors. Thinking about the past could help bring people to think about dying today, something to especially consider during Dying Matters Awareness week, and contribute to a more even and realistic discussion about death and the supposed “taboo”.