How Art Made the World

episode 5

The Skulls
Of Jericho
The Aztecs
of Mexico
The Etruscans


Solomon & Greenberg:
Death Images
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More Human Than HumanThe Day Pictures Were BornThe Art of PersuasionOnce Upon a TimeTo Death and Back

Death drives us to create some of
the most powerful images in the world.

To Death and Back

In our daily lives, we are bombarded constantly by images. But there is one image whose power over us is strangely mesmerizing. It terrifies and yet reassures us — it is the image of death. We build grave yards, and we even carry pictures of the dead. But why? What makes us surround ourselves with constant reminders of death? Experts think this preoccupation is rooted in the human mind; unlike animals, humans understand the inevitability of their own death and in fact can imagine a world in which we are no longer alive.

Unlike animals, humans understand the inevitability of their own death

It was in the famous Holy Land city of Jericho, 9,000 years ago, that archeologist believed people first surrounded themselves with images of death. The so-called "Jericho Skulls" were human skulls decorated as portraits of the deceased, and prominently kept in people's houses. It was reasoned if an ancestor's memory lived on through these skulls, so, one day, would theirs. And for the living, this provided comfort. But there are other images of death that are the opposite of reassurance.

The Moche civilization of Northern Peru excelled at performing horrific acts of sacrifice and then creating images of them in their temples. Theirs was not art as fantasy, it was art as documentary. But the Moche were not alone. The Aztecs of Mexico City also performed human sacrifice - but on a colossal scale, literally slaughtering captives by the mile. They even went so far as to create walls of human skulls, that were designed to frighten and drive people into supporting their values.

On the other hand, the Etruscans, in 400 BC Italy, were the first to bring together images of death that both reassured and terrified. The underworld Blue Demon, and happy afterlife pictures painted on Etruscan tombs, offered Etruscan warriors fighting the Romans a stark choice—'would you be damned or saved?' For the first time in history these conflicting images had been combined, and by doing so the Etruscans had invented a new and powerful image — the image of redemption.