The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently announced that its Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit recovered a rare 9,000-year-old limestone mask attributed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period (c. 8300–5500 B.C.E.). Fifteen other examples of this Neolithic stone mask type exist to date, although only two of them were found in a known archaeological context; the rest come from private collections. While the recently discovered mask wasn’t unearthed in a scientific excavation, an IAA press release reports that “an investigation revealed the probable archaeological site in which the mask was originally found, in the Pnei Hever region of southern Har Hevron.”
According to the IAA, other Neolithic stone masks have been found in this West Bank area, suggesting that this region was once a stone mask production center.
“Discovering a mask made of stone, at such a high level of finish, is very exciting,” said Ronit Lupu of the IAA Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit. “The stone has been completely smoothed over, and the features are perfect and symmetrical—even delineating cheek bones. It has an impressive nose and a mouth with distinct teeth.”
Four holes had been drilled into the edges of the Neolithic stone mask, perhaps to tie it around a person’s face or to a pole.
Scholars posit that the Neolithic stone masks were used for ritual purposes.
“Stone masks are linked to the agricultural revolution,” explained Dr. Omry Barzilai, head of the IAA Archaeological Research Department. “The transition from an economy based on hunting and gathering to ancient agriculture and domestication of plants and animals was accompanied by a change in social structure and a sharp increase in ritual-religious activities. Ritual findings from that period include human-shaped figurines, plastered skulls, and stone masks.”
Denise Schmandt-Besserat, “Stone Age Death Masks,” Archaeology Odyssey, March/April 2003.
Strata: “Exhibit Watch: World’s Oldest Masks,” BAR, September/October 2014.
“Should the Israel Museum Take the Dayan Collection Off Display?” BAR, March/April 2005.
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