Facing up to the masks

The Israel Museum’s new exhibition is a golden opportunity to get an eyeful of some simply spellbinding artifacts.

‘In terms of their importance, these Neolithic masks are on a level with the Dead Sea Scrolls.’  (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘In terms of their importance, these Neolithic masks are on a level with the Dead Sea Scrolls.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A learned local politician once mused that if Israel had oil reserves on a scale consummate with its archeological treasures we’d be doing all right. Judging by the items on display at the Face to Face exhibition, which opened this week at the Israel Museum and will run until September 13, there is more than a little collateral for the monetary-ancient finds analogy.
To give it its full name, Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World, is a golden opportunity to get an eyeful – as the second part of the title implies – of some simply fascinating artifacts. The full lineup includes 12 Neolithic masks, all found in and around the Negev. More specifically, the masks date from around the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B era, and were created as far back as 9,000 years ago.
Face to Face is something of an old boys’ reunion. The masks were collated by Dr. Debby Hershman, Ilse Katz Leibholz Curator of Prehistoric Cultures, at the Israel Museum, in an international effort that owed not a little to chance. It all started with a couple of items that had been on show at the museum vaults for quite a few years.
“For me, the whole thing began with two masks that had been part of the museum’s permanent display,” says Hershman, referring to a mask found in a cave at Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert, and another from Horvat Duma in the nearby Judean Hills.
Hershman is, by training, an archeologist and anthropologist who specializes in religion and cult activities of ancient societies.
“They are among the most important ancient international treasures in the museum,” she says.
In fact, the curator says it is hard to overestimate the value of the masks.
“I would say that, in terms of their importance, they are on a level with the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
High praise indeed. Hershman backs her claim with some evidence from the global village stage.
“When they started the international Google [Art] Project [in 2012] that incorporated 24 museums around the world in which you could take a virtual tour. On the day the project started, each museum took part in a press conference at which it displayed an item or two through which it wanted to present itself to the world. Israel Museum director James Snyder chose the mask from Horvat Duma, which is 9,000 years old, and was previously part of the [Moshe] Dayan Collection. People here who follow the project told me that the mask got the most hits of all the items on display, from all the museums.”
Moshe Dayan gained something of a reputation for obtaining all manner of valuable archeological artifacts by left-field means, but Hershman says that the late military leader and politician added the Horvat Duma mask by means of an honest purchase.
“He bought the mask, in 1970, at Kafr Idna [near Hebron],” she says, remarking that the deal was swiftly followed by a more official investigation on the site of the discovery of the mask. “Archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority went to the field where the mask was found, by a tractor driver, and they carried out an excavation to see whether there were any more finds there. They found remains from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period.”
That helped to neatly date the mask to 9,000 years ago.
The masks are an aesthetic delight to behold, and appear to be the work of craftsmen who really knew their business. Some had the remains of hairs on them – facial as well as at the top – which seems to suggest that they were all male masks, with one mask still bearing the remains of paint. The Horvat Duma mask, says Hershman, comes from a formative stage of human civilization.
“That was possibly the peak of the agricultural revolution when there were large villages, with hundreds of inhabitants.”
Dayan was naturally thrilled with his purchase and took it to Jean Perrot, a French archeologist who specialized in the late prehistory of this part of the world, and spent many years working here. Perrot, even before the Antiquities Authority’s rescue dig, dated the mask to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period.
“The mask is unique,” says Hershman. “There is simply no other like it anywhere.”
Happily, Dayan decided to allow the Israel Museum to display the mask for a few years, under the aegis of Hershman’s predecessor Dr. Tamar Noy, before it returned to his own private archeological repository. Following Dayan’s death, in 1981, his collection was purchased by the Israel Museum and was once more displayed to the public in 1986.
By the time the Horvat Duma mask returned to the museum it was no longer the only Neolithic artifact of its kind there.
“In 1983 a small team of archeologists went to excavate a cave at Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert, around 40 km.
south of Arad,” Hershman explains. “It was a team from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Hebrew University [of Jerusalem], under Prof. [Ofer] Bar-Yosef, who is now at Harvard University, and the now late David Alon.”
Judging by events at the site over the years, the members of the team were fortunate to find anything at all there, let alone an extremely rare Neolithic mask.
“The cave had already been robbed a couple of times,” continues Hershman. “To begin with it was thought that the site dated from the Bar-Kochba era [early second century CE] but they started finding baskets and beads and all sorts of organic things, and the archeologists realized it was a prehistoric site.” Hershman was a member of the team along with Prof. Yuval Goren, when they were then both students.
She enlisted Goren’s help when, around a decade ago, she came across an exciting discovery at the museum – photographs of masks that bore a resemblance to the two items already at the museum. Goren, an expert in comparative microarcheology, set about investigating the masks’ geographical origins, and Hershman’s detective work was also supported by the Computerized Archeological Laboratory of the Hebrew University, and particularly by Dr. Leore Grosman who employs 3-D scanning technology for archeological research.
A couple or so years ago Lady Luck smiled on Hershman when she asked Snyder if he could help to try to track down the masks in the photographs. Shortly afterwards the museum director was in New York and visited Judy and Michael Steinhardt and saw the very same masks from the photographs in the Steinhardt’s library.
“That was a complete stroke of luck,” says Hershman.
“I could have shown him the photographs after he came back from New York. It worked out very well.”
It did indeed, and the Face to Face exhibition, which was tastefully designed by Chanan de Lange, is a truly unique group of artifacts from a pivotal stage of human, cultural and social evolution, that will no doubt thrill thousands of visitors to the Israel Museum over the next six months. • For more information: (02) 670-8811 and www.english.imjnet.org.il/