Back in March of 2014, an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem brought forth a collection of what was touted as the “world’s oldest masks”. Painstakingly crafted from stones, these 9,000-year old artifacts were made by the early farmers of the Judean Hills region. In essence, there is a historical significance to these artifacts, given how the immediate ancestors of the prehistoric farmer-craftsmen in Levant were the ones (among many) to sow the ‘seeds’ of human civilizations by making the transition from hunting-and-gathering to introducing a range of founder crops like barley, lentils, chickpeas, emmer and flax. And beyond just chronological significance, these ancient Neolithic masks also allude to the development of culture and religion, as the objects probably symbolized the spirits of dead ancestors – and thus were possibly used in Stone Age rituals.
From the archaeological perspective, the mask specimens were (probably) salvaged from various areas in and around the Judean Hills and the Judean desert, in proximity to Jerusalem. For example, one particular specimen was discovered in 1983 inside the Nahal Hemar cave along a cliff by the Dead Sea; while another was found fortuitously, and quite aptly, when a ‘modern’ farmer was tilling his field in the nearby site of Horvat Duma. In addition to the mask in the earlier-mentioned case of the cave, researchers had also uncovered wooden beads, shells, flint knives and embroidered clothes (that were possibly worn during rituals), along with macabre objects like figurines made of bones and human skulls ‘decorated’ with asphalt.
Now since we brought up the macabre scope of these discoveries, there is no denying the sense of eeriness one could attribute to these Neolithic masks. As Debby Hershman, curator of the Israel Museum’s Prehistoric Cultures Department, made it clear –
Many of them look like dead people. In fact, I think they’re portraits of specific people — probably important ancestors.
Interestingly enough, their ‘naked’ faces may seem to be more menacing. To that end, archaeologists had also come across tufts of dilapidated hair that were stuck to some of the masks, but later removed on account of the exhibition. So in a manner, all of the masks represented adult males, with each originally having its set of facial hair including beard, mustache and possibly even hair. And rather notching it up on the sinister factor, the masks were probably modeled on actual human skulls (of old men), thus having realistic contours that mirror the prominent cheeks, temples, eye sockets, and even the teeth bared in their creepy grimace.
Finally, it brings us to the question – were these masks actually worn, or only displayed for their symbolism related to the ancestors? Well experts at the The Hebrew University of Jerusalem had created 3D reconstructions of the Neolithic artifacts, and found out that each specimens had its individual dimensions that tend follow the proportions of human faces. Additionally the view from the eye-holes allow for a wide field of vision, while many of the specimens also have holes along their edges. This latter characteristic possibly had to do with straps that were fastened to living faces.
Furthermore, in spite of their stone-made nature, the masks are relatively light (between 2.2 to 4.4 lbs), especially in comparison to the ritual masks that are worn in various ceremonial affairs across Africa and Oceania. But the question still remains – what exactly were the Stone Age cultural rituals that can be associated with these objects? Hershman believes that the Neolithic artifacts were accorded special status and thus were associated with prestige. She also admitted that further investigations and newer contextual discoveries might just help in solving the mysteries of the world’s oldest masks.