9,000-year-old Stone Mask Unveiled

Israel Antiquities Authority reveals rare neolithic mask in Pnei Hever region.

In the Judean hills east of Hebron, an extremely rare artifact was recovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Geological Survey of Israel. The artifact, a 9,000 year-old limestone mask, is one of only 15 such masks worldwide. 

Photo:  Antiquities Theft Prevention   Unit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Photo: Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Near the beginning of 2018 the IAA’s Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit (ATPU) received information which led to the mask’s recovery. In their following investigations of the area the IAA revealed an archeological site where the mask originated. Out of the 15 such masks discovered to date, this is only the second with a known archaeological context. While other similar masks came to light on the antiquities market and are currently dispersed in private collections, this discovery promises researchers the opportunity to study it in light of its original context.

The fact that we have information regarding the specific place in which it was discovered makes this mask more important than most other masks from this period that we currently know of.
— Ronit Lupu of the IAA Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit,

The mask is made of pinkish-yellow limestone, and was expertly hewn with stone tools. Resembling a human face, the detail and symmetry of the mask is impressive. The mask has defined cheek bones, a shapely nose, and distinct teeth. The limestone material was smoothed over, completing a well-crafted look. “Discovering a mask made of stone, at such a high level of finish, is very exciting” said  Ronit Lupu. Along the edges of the mask are four perforations, presumably for tying the mask. Archaeologists are unsure if stone masks  such as this would have been worn by a person, or perhaps mounted on a pole to be displayed.

Ronit Lupu of the IAA’s Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit discusses the Neolithic mask. Video: Israel Antiquities Authority

The characteristics of the mask indicate that it belongs to the Pre-pottery Neolithic B culture, and was made about 9,000 years ago. Additional findings at the Pnei Hever archaeological site support this assessment. The Neolithic period was a time of significant development for Mesopotamian cultures. In addition to agricultural practices being achieved for the first time, the Neolithic period saw an increase in religious ritual.

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.
— Dr. Omry Barzilai, head of the IAA Archaeological Research Department,
Profile view of the Ancient Mask.  Photo:  Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Profile view of the Ancient Mask. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists believe that stone masks such as the one discovered in Pnei Hever played some role in ritualistic ancestor worship. Lupu explains that ancestor worship was a means of honoring the dead and retaining family heritage. “For example,” she says, “we find skulls buried under the floors of domestic houses, as well as various methods of shaping and caring for the skulls of the dead. This led to plastering skulls, shaping facial features, and even inserting shells for eyes. Stone masks, such as the one from Pnei Hever, are similar in size to the human face, which is why scholars tend to connect them with such worship.”

Photo:  Antiquities Theft Prevention   Unit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Photo: Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, Israel Antiquities Authority

To really understand the function or meaning of an artifact, it is important that Archaeologists know the location and original context in which the artifact was found. This is why the Theft Prevention Unit’s work is crucial in not only protecting artifacts and antiquity sites from being damaged, but also in protecting archaeological information from being lost by removing an artifact from its context. 

One observation Archaeologists have made regarding the location of the mask is that the Har Hevron area may have been a center for mask production. Several other masks dating to the Neolithic B period have been attributed to the Har Hevron region. The Pnei Hever mask supports the idea that this area of the Southern Judean Desert was a center for ritual activity during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period.

Dr. Omry Barzilai and Ronit Lupu of the IAA presented their initial research on November 29 at the Israel Prehistoric Society annual meeting, held at the Israel Museum.

Abby VanderHart, FIAA Contributor

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