Archaeological investigations near Nazareth--Jesus' boyhood home--have revealed that the area was a major cult center 8,000 years before the time of Christ.

Excavations at Kibbutz Kfar HaHoresh, less than two miles from the town center, have so far unearthed strangely decorated human skulls and evidence for unusual, complex burials. "This is the first example in the Levant of a purely religious complex from this remote period," says excavation director Nigel Goring-Morris of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "This is a totally new type of site." The cult center seems to have serviced the religious needs of villagers a few miles away.

So far the remains of 65 people have been unearthed--but hundreds more are expected to be found as excavations continue. Many of the remains were interred as part of complex rituals. One partly disarticulated, headless man had been laid to rest on top of a pile of 250 aurochs (wild ox) bones, while at least four children were buried with fox mandibles. Several other individuals were interred with what may have been heirloom flint tools. Archaeologists at HaHoresh have also discovered a remarkable prehistoric "work of art": 50 human bones seemingly arranged in the shape of an animal, possibly an aurochs or a wild boar. This image was constructed, it seems, to mark the burial place of around a dozen people.

Three specially enhanced human skulls have also been discovered. Each of them had been deliberately defleshed after death and overlaid with lime plaster modeled to form facial features. Two of the skulls had then been painted red--one with red ocher, the other with a red pigment that must have come from quarries far to the north in what is now central Turkey. Red pigment, presumably signifying the blood of life, is known to have been painted onto corpses or skeletons in many ancient societies, probably as a form of sympathetic magic designed to help the deceased achieve life after death.

The discovery of several lime kilns at the site suggests that the plaster used for the skulls and for sealing many of the graves was manufactured on-site. Ten thousand years ago these burials must have been an extraordinary sight, for the white plaster grave surfaces--some covering up to 850 square feet--had been deliberately burnished by mourners or devotees to such an extent that the graves probably shimmered in the sun. Some burials were overlaid with up to three tons of plaster.

Even at this early time, 400 generations ago, society may well have been quite rigidly stratified. While at least a quarter of the population of the area at the time were thrown into village rubbish pits left in abandoned houses after death, others appear to have been taken to Nazareth, where their remains were treated with due deference.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America

Defleshed human skulls with features modeled out of red-painted plaster are among the unusual finds at the Nazareth cult site. (Courtesy Nigel Goring-Morris)