“When we found the mask on its own, we assumed that it had filled a ritual function. Since we found it outside the city, one of the hypotheses was that we were looking at evidence of a mysterious ritual center that existed outside the city,” explained Michael Eisenberg, director of the Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project, in a University of Haifa press release. “However, as we all know, monumental gate structures lead to large compounds. Accordingly, it is not impossible that this gate led to a large building complex—perhaps a sanctuary in honor of the god Pan or one of the other rustic gods—situated just before the entrance to the city of Hippos.”
Outside of the Greco-Roman city of Hippos-Sussita, overlooking the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the archaeologists last year found a uniquely large bronze Pan mask within a basalt ashlar building. In a 2015 press release, Eisenberg explained why this mask was so rare: “Most of the known bronze masks from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are miniature.”
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Believing that further excavation of the building would provide more information about the mask, the archaeologists dug deeper, assuming that the building was part of the fortifications of the city. Instead, they uncovered two square basalt towers measuring about 21 feet by 21 feet and separated by a 12-foot gap. The towers, which were part of the monumental Roman gateway, are estimated to have originally stood 20 feet tall. The archaeologists date the building to the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138 C.E.) or earlier. While initially the mask was dated on the basis of its artistic style, the discovery of the Roman gateway will allow for more accurate dating. The mask may have been fixed to the wall or altar in the building, because researchers discovered on the back of the mask lead fragments used to stabilize objects.
What kind of worship would have occurred at this proposed Pan sanctuary outfitted with a monumental Roman gateway? Dr. Eisenberg explains, “The worship of Pan sometimes included ceremonies involving drinking, sacrifices and ecstatic rituals, including nudity and sex. This worship usually took place outside the city walls, in caves and other natural settings. We are very familiar with the city of Paneas to the north of Hippos, which was the site of one of the best-known sanctuaries for the worship of Pan. But here we find a monumental gate and evidence of an extensive compound, so the mystery only gets stranger.”
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“What kind of worship of Pan or his fellow [deity] Dionysus, the god of wine, took place here in Hippos? To answer that question, we will have to keep on digging,” Eisenberg concluded.
David Malamud is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.