Are Plastered Skulls Art?

This week’s lesson on the Neolithic touched on the curious practice of using plaster and paint to recreate the appearance of faces on human skulls. Examples of plastered skulls were first found in the 1930s and 1950s at the site of Jericho. But since then, they have also been found at other important sites like Ain Ghazal and Catal Huyuk. As we’ve learned through studying these artifacts in detail, the process of preparing these skulls must have been pretty involved. The head needed to be detached from the body, defleshed, drained of its contents, then filled with earth/clay before any of the plaster reconstruction could take place. The point is that these heads are not created / decorated on a whim. This leads to the inevitable question of why people were doing this in the Neolithic period. One common explanation is that this was an early form of commemoration. It has been noted that the heads are often “sculpted” in a way that leaves a flat resting surface along the bottom edge, where the lower jaw, which is usually removed, once attached to the cranium. This would suggest that they were meant to sit upright, perhaps on a shelf or in a niche in a wall. The discovery of one of these plastered heads cradled in the arms of a woman buried at Catal Huyuk also suggests that these objects held a place of importance in the lives of some people in the Neolithic. Commemorating the dead through the use of their body or through the creation of a likeness is a practice that we continue to do today. It is possible to note some of the more eye-catching instances of such commemoration activities over the years. Here are links to some of those examples. Embalming of politicians / leaders Display of the dead in catacombs Sculpted busts of individuals atop their burials Post-mortem photographs Certainly, the last two examples, sculptures and photographs, make use of representational forms that are often associated with “art.” This raises the question–should we consider plastered skulls to be examples of Neolithic art? I’m torn on this issue. For example, does the use of certain materials make something more or less a work of art? Granted, the use of skeletal material is rare, but not unknown. Take for example these Tibetan kapalas that serve a spiritual function, but are also carefully created objects of art in their own right. Another, more architectural example, might be the use of bones in places like the Sedlec Ossuary or certain crypts in the catacombs of Paris. Then again, recreating someone’s appearance as a memorial might be “artistic” and “skillful,” but I’m not sure we’d consider every photograph of a deceased relative “art.” Think about all the pictures we keep in scrapbooks or online. I’d like to know what you think about all this. Please contribute a post to this discussion addressing the following questions: Do you think Neolithic plastered skulls were meant to be works of art? Depending on your answer, do you think it’s worth discussing them in an ancient art class? Furthermore, how does this relate to more recent photos and sculptures of the deceased? Are these art? Or Just “artistic”? More generally though, do you think something has to be intended from the start to be a work of art or can it become such at a later point in time?

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