9,000-year-old stone mask discovered in southern Hebron Hills.
(photo credit: ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
A stone mask from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period was discovered in the Pnei Hever region of the southern Hebron Hills.
It was recovered by the Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit in the beginning of the year, after the authority received reports that a mask had been found. An initial study of the mask will be presented by the authority and the Geological Survey of Israel on Thursday at the Israel Prehistoric Society’s annual meeting at the Israel Museum.
The mask is made of pinkish-yellow limestone, shaped with stone tools to resemble a human face, according to the Antiquities Authority. Four holes were drilled along the mask’s perimeter, probably to display the mask on a pole or to thread string with which to tie the mask over the face.
The stone’s high level of finish and delineation of cheek bones, as well as a mouth with carved teeth, render the mask a distinct find, said Ronit Lupu of the authority’s Theft Prevention Unit.
“It is even more unusual that we know which site it came from,” Lupu said. “The fact that we have information regarding the specific place it was discovered makes this mask more important than most other masks from this period that we currently know of.”
The mask’s appearance and other findings from the archaeological site provide clues that the mask dates from approximately 9,000 years ago.
Stone masks from this period are linked to the agricultural revolution, in which the population shifted from hunting and gathering to raising plants and animals. The revolution also marked a change in social characteristics, in which archaeologists have noted an increase in religious and ritual activity. Material finds from ritual activities of the time include figurines, stone masks and other objects relating to the human form.
Ancestor worship is one example of ritualistic activities, and is evident by the number of plastered skulls and masks found in domestic houses from this time period, according to Lupu and Dr. Omry Barzilai, head of the Antiquity Authority’s archaeological research department.
Fifteen masks have been discovered so far around the world that date from this time period, although only two have been found within an archaeological site. The rest have been recovered from private collections, making it difficult to ascertain information about their original source. The authority stressed that the importance of the newly discovered mask stems from the fact that it has been traced to an archaeological site which can be studied. Thus, having a site which is linked to the mask can help scholars understand the culture and world where the mask was produced, likely for spiritual purposes.
The Pnei Hever mask joins others that have been discovered in the South Hebron Hills-Judean Desert area, adding to evidence that such masks may have been produced locally.
The plastering of skulls in mask production are forms of honoring postmortem skull removal in the Levant, a practice that started during the Natufian period. It took off during the Neolithic era, with masks having been recovered from sites such as Ain Ghazal, Jericho, Beisamoun, Ramad, Nahal Hemar and Kfar Hahoresh. Most of the masks were not intended to be accurate likenesses of human faces, as most of them found lack a properly formed mandible.
The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period also saw larger sites of inhabitance, as well as more permanent architecture, including impressively plastered and polished floors, and changes in stone and other tools used for daily activities. The Neolithic culture was centered in upper Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Assyria and Upper and Lower Egypt.