Jericho (Palestine) - Archaeology of the Ancient City

The Archaeology of the Ancient City of Jericho

Plastered Skulls from Jericho, Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period
Plastered skulls recovered from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B levels of Jericho, made between 7,300–6,000 B.C.E. Nathan Benn / Corbis Historical / Gerry Images

Jericho, also known as Ariha ("fragrant" in Arabic) or Tulul Abu el Alayiq ("City of Palms"), is the name of a Bronze Age city mentioned in the book of Joshua and other parts of both the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian bible. The ruins of the ancient city are believed to be part of the archaeological site called Tel es-Sultan, an enormous mound or tell situated on an ancient lakebed north of the Dead Sea in what is today the West Bank of Palestine.

The oval mound stands 8-12 meters (26-40 feet) tall above the lake bed, a height made up of the ruins of 8,000 years of building and rebuilding in the same place. Tell es-Sultan covers an area of about 2.5 hectares (6 acres). The settlement that the tell represents is one of oldest more or less continuously occupied locations on our planet and it is currently over 200 m (650 ft) below modern sea level.

Jericho Chronology

The most widely known occupation at Jericho is, of course, the Judeo-Christian Late Bronze Age one–Jericho is mentioned in both old and new Testaments of the bible. However, the oldest occupations at Jericho are in fact much earlier than that, dating to the Natufian period (ca. 12,000–11,300 years before the present), and it has a substantial Pre-Pottery Neolithic (8,300–7,300 B.C.E.) occupation as well.

  • Natufian or Epipaleolihic (10,800–8,500 B.C.E.) Sedentary hunter-gatherers living in large semi-subterranean oval stone structures
  • Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) (8,500–7300 B.C.E.) Oval semi-subterranean dwellings in a village, engaging in long distance trade and growing domesticated crops, construction of the first tower (4 m tall), and a defensive perimeter wall
  • Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) (7,300–6,000 B.C.E.) Rectangular houses with red- and white-painted floors, with caches of plastered human skulls
  • Early Neolithic (6,000–5,000 B.C.E.) Jericho was mostly abandoned at this time
  • Middle/Late Neolithic (5,000–3,100 B.C.E.) Very minimal occupation
  • Early / Middle Bronze Age (3,100–1,800 B.C.E.) Extensive defensive walls constructed, rectangular towers 15-20 m long and 6-8 m tall and extensive cemeteries, Jericho destroyed circa 3300 cal BP
  • Late Bronze Age (1,800–1,400 B.C.E.) Limited settlement
  • After the Late Bronze Age, Jericho was no longer much of a center, but continued to be occupied on a small scale, and ruled by Babylonians, Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire up until the present day

Tower of Jericho

Jericho's tower is perhaps its defining piece of architecture. British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon discovered the monumental stone tower during her excavations at Tel es-Sultan in the 1950s. The tower is on the western fringe of the PPNA settlement separated from it by a ditch and a wall; Kenyon suggested it was part of the town's defenses. Since Kenyon's day, Israeli archaeologist Ran Barkai and colleagues have suggested the tower was an ancient astronomical observatory, one of the earliest on record.

Jericho's tower is made of concentric rows of undressed stone and it was built and used between 8,300–7,800 B.C.E.

It is slightly conical in form, with a base diameter of roughly 9 m (30 ft) and a top diameter of about 7 m (23 ft). It rises to a height of 8.25 m (27 ft) from its base. When excavated, parts of the tower were covered with a layer of mud plaster, and during its use, it may have been completely covered in plaster. At the base of the tower, a short passageway leads to an enclosed stairway which was also heavily plastered. A group of burials was found in the passage, but they were placed there after the building's use.

An Astronomical Purpose?

The internal stairway has at least 20 stairs made up of smoothly hammer-dressed stone blocks, each over 75 centimeters (30 inches) in width, the entire width of the passageway. The stair treads are between 15-20 cm (6-8 in) deep and each step rises nearly 39 cm (15 in) each.

The slope of the stairs is about 1.8 (~60 degrees), much steeper than modern stairways which normally range between .5-.6 (30 degrees). The stairway is roofed by massive sloping stone blocks measuring 1x1 m (3.3x3.3 ft).

The stairs at the top of the tower open up facing to the east, and on what would have been midsummer solstice 10,000 years ago, the viewer could watch the sun set above Mt. Quruntul in the Judean mountains. The peak of Mount Quruntul rose 350 m (1150 ft) higher than Jericho, and it is conical in shape. Barkai and Liran (2008) have argued that the conical shape of the tower was built to mimic that of Quruntul.

Plastered Skulls

Ten plastered human skulls have been recovered from the Neolithic layers at Jericho. Kenyon discovered seven in a cache deposited during the middle PPNB period, below a plastered floor. Two others were found in 1956, and a 10th in 1981.

Plastering human skulls is a ritual ancestor worship practice known from other middle PPNB sites such as 'Ain Ghazal and Kfar HaHoresh. After the individual (both males and females) died, the skull was removed and buried. Later, the PPNB shamans unearthed the skulls and modeled facial features such as chin, ears, and eyelids in plaster and placing shells in the eye sockets. Some of the skulls have as many as four layers of plaster, leaving the upper skull bare.

Jericho and Archaeology

Tel es-Sultan was first recognized as the biblical site of Jericho a very long time ago indeed, with the earliest mention from the 4th century C.E.

anonymous Christian traveler known as the "Pilgrim of Bordeaux." Among the archaeologists who have worked at Jericho are Carl Watzinger, Ernst Sellin, Kathleen Kenyon and John Garstang. Kenyon excavated at Jericho between 1952 and 1958 and is widely credited with introducing scientific excavation methodologies into biblical archaeology.

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